Who are the Finns? Ask The Finns!

Combining support for the welfare state with xenophobic populist sentiments, The Finns have clouded and shaken the traditionally straightforward Finnish political landscape. Beyond this textbook example of mainstream recognition for a previously radical faction, what do the Finns really stand for?

Timo Soini, leader of the True Finns, and the party's candidate for the 2012 presidential election. Wikimedia Commons/Jaakko Sivonen. Some rights reserved.Timo Soini, leader of the True Finns, and the party's candidate for the 2012 presidential election. Wikimedia Commons/Jaakko Sivonen. Some rights reserved.

In the municipal elections held on 28 October, The Finns (Perussuomalaiset, formerly known as True Finns, but changed in 2011 to the current form) gained a historical result: 12.3 percent of the vote and 1195 seats in different municipalities across Finland, an increase of 752 representatives. In the Finnish parliamentary elections of April 2011, the party famously experienced a remarkably large and sudden rise, with a 19.1 percent share of the vote and 39 seats, an increase of 34 MPs from the previous elections. Finland has had a relatively stable political map for decades, and so far had not had such a large populist party in the Parliament. The boom in The Finns’ popularity thus surprised many. The Finns’ anti-establishment stance and especially their Euroscepticism also caused observers in both Finland and abroad to view the party’s increasing popularity with unease.
The party’s image has been further tainted by the convictions of some of its MPs for xenophobic and racist actions. The Finns remain in the opposition in the Parliament but indeed make headlines frequently. Before the municipal elections, the party was predicted to gain over 15 percent of the vote. Even though the party did not receive such a triumphant victory, the final result still speaks clearly of the continuous popularity of The Finns in Finland.

What is it that The Finns stand for? Reading the two most recent party programmes for the parliamentary and the municipal elections, it becomes clear that the party has a populist and ethnonationalist foundation. Ethnonationalism here refers to a belief that a group of people inside a nation-state share a common ancestral past and therefore are naturally entitled to a homogenous ethnic homeland. This belief also views different ethnicities and cultures as naturally incompatible. The Finns exhibit ethnonationalism frequently in their parliamentary programme. For The Finns it is natural that humanity is divided into separate cultures: “The pursuit of truth and spirituality is essential for human beings, and as there are several truths and points of view, it is only natural that people should arrange themselves in different cultural groups”.

The Finns further describe different cultures in their signature colloquial style: “an individual national culture is a gift that each nation can give to the diversity of the world”. And the gift of Finland is ‘Finnishness’. This type of sentimental argumentation is common in ethnonationalist thinking. Furthermore, as national differences are natural, The Finns underline that maintaining societal order and preserving the Finnish culture is not racism. For the party, highlighting the importance of separate cultures actually enhances the position of a society’s weaker members. This is because such nationalism acknowledges the uniqueness of individuals, unlike the prevailing “supranational” policies, which “practically force people to move across national borders”. 

The party’s understanding of the basis for ‘Finnish identity’ becomes clear in the Finns’ suggestions for assimilation policies. The party positions the ability of immigrants to speak fluent Finnish as one of the highest priorities. Noteworthy here is that Swedish is also an official language in Finland, but The Finns are against keeping Swedish as a compulsory school subject and suggest cutting funding for the Swedish language state media. The language question is also linked to the Finns’ worries about the ‘ghettoisation’ of Finland. By this they mean a process in which immigrants housed in cheap suburbs form their own 'artificial communities', in which they feel no need to interact with the ‘real’ society or learn the language. The party programme reads: “The continuous clamour in Europe’s immigrant suburbs shows what the current developments are going to cause in Finland”. Not only do these developments cause societal problems, but also threaten the Finnish identity: “The building of the Finnish identity demanded a tremendous amount of work and preservation through centuries. However, losing it happens by stealth if one remains indifferent and inactive”. The party thus paints a threatening picture of a future of multicultural developments. But, through The Finns’ ethnonationalism-inspired policies, Finland can still be saved from such a fate. 

Similar views may be observed in The Finns’ party programme for the municipal elections. The party evokes a nostalgic image of Finland of ‘a golden past’ where small thriving municipalities offer an abundance of services, quality education and even local organic food for the citizens. This image is threatened by the (EU–dictated) policies of the ‘cold’ dominant parties, who are only after the interests of the elite. Overall, the Finns conjure up a sentimental image of traditional and historic Finland and ‘Finnishness’, one threatened by self-interested elites and foreign influences. National cultural cohesiveness is once again presented as a positive goal, something that ensures the continuance of the imagined historical ‘homeland’. The Finns again emphasize the problems arising from immigration, which will harm the societal order of the nation because people are forced to “stay in a completely foreign culture”. The party is especially concerned with ‘positive’ discrimination, which they find immigration causes, as the minorities are given “special rights” over the majority of ‘real’ Finns. Worries over positive discrimination are common among contemporary populists and can be associated with the perceived universality of ethnonationalism. This is to say no preference should be given to (immigrant) minorities over natural national majorities. Indeed on a similar vein, The Finns advocate reducing humanitarian immigration, but increasing aid given to countries in need.

Even though the party renounces racism, it has often been associated with racist opinions and suspected of moving towards extreme right-wing views. Even the former President of Finland, Tarja Halonen, has expressed concerns that The Finns attract racist voters. However, if compared with their counterparts around Europe, the party’s official line may appear quite mild. For example, in neighbouring Sweden, the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) are known for outright racist statements mainly targeted towards Muslims and Islam. The Finns, while clearly sceptical of multicultural development, refrain from naming any specific immigrant groups as especially problematic. The current party leader, Timo Soini, is not known for xenophobic statements, and appears moderate in his stance towards immigration. But, outside the party’s official line, individual party members and MPs have caused controversy with their statements.

Two of The Finns’ MPs have been convicted of incitement against an ethnic group over blog entries that were found to unreasonably slander Muslims, especially those from Somalia. The most recent occurrence is the conviction of MP Jussi Halla-aho in June 2012 over a blog entry he made in 2008. Halla-aho, a PhD in linguistics, is a well-known immigration critic and has run his popular blog, called “Scripta – Writings from the Sinking West”, since 2003. In Halla-aho’s signature style of writing his rather extreme arguments are based on seemingly sound research, which he presents as an objective observation on current problems. In the controversial blog entry, by presenting offending comments about the Prophet Muhammad and Somali immigrants, his aim was to point out the bias of the Finnish legal system, which according to Halla-aho treats immigrants (and Muslims) more leniently than ‘real’ Finns. Halla-aho was sentenced to pay a fine, and ordered to remove the offensive statements. Later, he resigned from his post as the chairman of the Parliament’s Administrative Committee, a government body which handles immigration legislation.

While the party leader Soini had previously stated that nobody convicted of racism could be an MP for The Finns, no action was taken by the party to discipline Halla-aho. Soini commented that Halla-aho’s fine was punishment enough. In the recent municipal elections, Halla-aho was the third most popular candidate in the whole country,with a steep rise in votes.

The success of The Finns - and especially of members such Halla-aho - have often been attributed to protest voting. The Finns’ vocal anti-EU stance and their sentimental depiction of Finland attract voters who experience insecurity in the globalising world, and wish for a return to ‘simpler’ times. The euro crisis certainly has deepened such feelings for many, as Finland, a relatively affluent country, is now dependent on and responsible for other nations that may not have practiced similarly efficient economic policies. A vote for The Finns therefore is not necessarily a vote for xenophobia or exclusionary immigration policies, but against the current establishment’s perceived reckless practices. Several studies have however found that voters commonly choose populist parties because they share their views, and not merely as a protest. This is to say that while The Finns may attract those wishing for change in the establishment, the common voter is more likely to identify with the party’s ethnonationalist ideas. The popularity of Jussi Halla-aho in the municipal elections also suggests that his line of xenophobia may be more common in Finland than previously thought.

As the municipal elections have shown, the party and even its controversial members remain popular. While The Finns’ members have a variety of different opinions, the party’s official line is still more moderate than extreme. However, by advocating policies based on ethnonationalism, the party seeks to alter the national discourse on citizenship, immigration and cultural diversity. Especially in such times of insecurity, many may share The Finns’ longing for a past of simplicity and harmony, and point to the EU or immigration as the cause of all problems. However, it is needless to say that a golden past never existed and reminiscing does not move the country forward. In reality, these discourses and policies create negative divisions between groups of people who, like it or not, make up Finland today.

About the author

Anna Vesterinen is currently completing her postgraduate studies in International Studies and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.