Can Europe Make It?

Finland for the Finns?

To the astonishment of both their supporters and opponents, the populist Finns Party are likely to be influential players in the new Finnish coalition government. What does this mean for Finland...and for Europe?

Anna Vesterinen
26 May 2015

Could Timo Soini be kingmaker in a new Finnish government? Flickr/UKIP pix. Some rights reserved.“We are here in our homeland because we are needed. Today is payday!” Timo Soini, the charismatic leader of the Finns Party, declared in his trademark colloquial rhetoric when the results of this year’s General Election were confirmed. The Finns Party finished second, winning 38 seats out of 200 and narrowly pushing the previous winner, the centre-right National Coalition Party (NCP) to the third place with 37 seats. As polls had suggested, the Centre Party took the lead with 49 seats.

To the astonishment of both their supporters and opponents, the Finns Party had repeated their historical 2011 success, when the party gained just over 19% of the vote. At the time, this meant that a 4 MP party was in one go elevated to 39 seats. I wrote about the Finns in 2012 after they had triumphed again in the year’s Municipal Elections. Back then, the staggering rise of this populist and nationalist party was making headlines all over the world as yet another sign of Europe’s worrying slide towards far-right politics, anti-EU sentiments and xenophobia. However, while nobody doubted that the Finns Party had real support, not many would have counted on the party to hold on to their popularity all the way to the next election. So, what brought Soini’s payday around for the second time?

In his article, Gareth Rice suggests that denial of the difficulties the country is about to face is built into the Finnish culture, and that the Finns Party with their populist and nationalist agenda offer the voters an opportunity to “bury their heads in the sand.” A look at the Finns’ election manifesto, and the recent developments in the coalition negotiations that the party is now engaged in, certainly reveals many displays of suitable sandpits.

As it was in 2011, the Finns’ election manifesto for 2015 is full of populist and nationalist rhetoric. Presented throughout in their characteristic colloquial language, the programme concentrates on conjuring an image of the sacred homeland and its natural inhabitants – the only legitimate members of the civil society. As in Rice’s example of the Machiavellian side of the Finns Party’s immigration policy, the manifesto makes it quite clear that “our people” are to be preferred in employment, health and social care, education and housing; “the common people” are threatened by “asylum shoppers,” “the cheap labour,” and “the freeloaders“. This negative othering of immigrants easily leads to the conclusion that immigration is not a solution to the dire economic times and the looming labour shortage, but actually cause it.

Indeed, as Rice fears, no concerns about the shrinking workforce are mentioned - Finland has enough people who, if given the chance and incentive, will fill all labour needs. As a quick fix for the current economic difficulties, the party suggests immediately cutting down Finland’s EU membership fees and our many “world hugging expenses” such as development aid and “the cost of immigration.” In a true populist style such suggestions are presented with common sense appeals - “we are not the world’s health centre and social security agency” - and a finger is pointed at the Establishment: “We find it disgraceful that our people queue at food banks, while we are offering our healthcare to the entire world.”

Even if anti-establishment sentiments are ingrained into the Finns’ programme, a government position may have been Soini’s objective long before the election. Earlier this year he received harsh criticism from prominent party members for the party’s moderate opposition period, especially the lack of immigration policy debate. While this undoubtedly disappointed his supporters, it also made the Finns Party more palatable as a partner for government negotiations. It was not always thus though. After their 2011 success, the Finns Party were expected to enter a coalition government of the winning NCP.

However, after the initial rounds of negotiations, Soini led his group back to the opposition, citing irreconcilable differences in matters concerning the EU, and the Greek bail-outs. Now that the Finns Party do not need to bow down to the Euro-positive and immigrant-friendly NCP, and the Centre leader Juha Sipilä is acting as a mediator, it seems that Soini is more than willing to make his party a part of the Establishment. Indeed, for the past few weeks, almost daily, Soini has appeared in a most cheerful humour alongside Sipilä and NCP’s Alexander Stubb to give briefs on their progress (Jari Korkki at YLE amusingly names the party leaders the three jolly musketeers).

As the negotiations are still ongoing, it is difficult to say how satisfied the Finns Party will be with the final government programme. However, the briefs given so far have not disappointed their followers. Last week saw the most anxiously awaited one, when the party leaders presented their objectives on immigration, the EU, and foreign policy. The three musketeers appeared before the press as jolly as ever, and for Soini there was a very good reason for this humour. “The government encourages open discussion about immigration policy, but no racism will be tolerated.

An independent investigation about the costs and impact of immigration on our society will be conducted,” was one of objectives presented. This would not look out of place in the Finns’ manifesto, with its populist rhetorical tools: the calls for open discussion and independent investigation have strong common sense appeal, while referring to “our society” positions immigrants as the other, on whom “costs” and a vague notion of “impact” are attached. The “no racism” clause sits well with the Finns Party too – after all, they officially renounce racism, stating that their anti-immigration stance (the party calls this “immigration criticism”) as something that arises from a natural, even benevolent, notion that different cultures fare best when kept separate and uniform.

As for other causes for rejoicing for the Finns Party, the negotiators concluded that existing restrictions to work-based immigration will remain in place. To this statement was attached a slightly moderating sentence “work-based immigration is seen as positive.” This is clearly attributable to the NCP and the Centre, who both featured the necessity of more work-based immigration in their election manifestos – a view echoed by the country’s leading business organisations and economic advisers. The Finns Party can also be heard on the statements about the EU: these have a reserved angle with the coalition partners expressing a wish for the Union to focus on essential questions, and the need for less regulation. Any increase in Finland’s responsibilities in overcoming the Euro crisis is rejected outright.

The brief pleased even one of the most anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic Finns MP, Jussi Halla-Aho. “We succeeded in preparation of the immigration brief as best as we could,” he told YLE after the press conference. His feelings seem to be echoed by the party’s supporters; a recent poll suggests that the popularity of the Finns Party has continued to grow after the election.

However, one large part of the coalition negotiations is yet to be published. This is the list of public sector cuts, which are rumoured to total some 4-5 billion euros. As much of their anti-establishment stances are based on the “disgraceful” way the poor, sick and elderly are treated, this can prove a major difficulty for the Finns Party. Indeed, last week several Finns MPs expressed their concerns about how the cuts will affect the vulnerable, and if unpalatable decisions will make it difficult for the party to back government policies. At the time of writing, Soini has announced his approval of the cuts, but these are yet to be detailed publicly. Therefore, at the moment, all signs point to the Finns Party making it to the government this time around.

While the Finns Party’s ideas undoubtedly offer convenient sandpits for voters to bury their heads in, their success may not be all about a nationwide ostrich moment. When the party emerged as a major political force in 2011, its triumph was often attributed to protest voting. The same argument could explain their success in this year’s election as well. In the past four years Finland has seen a remarkably inefficient “six-pack” coalition government, and a resignation of the Prime Minister in 2014.

The bickering coalition could not provide a credible response to the worrying national economic developments – a failure to provide a much needed social and health care reform has been named as one of the major failings. The Eurozone crisis and the constant coverage of the Greek debt crisis provided further ample protest material for the numerous Eurosceptics. When two opposition parties finish first and second in the election, it is not difficult to see in it a voters’ wish for change.

This wish could further be observed in the failure of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), who experienced the worst election result in the party’s 116 year history. It has been suggested that the Finns Party might have won the traditional labour vote from the SDP, whose already falling popularity probably suffered further from the negative press time in the coalition received.

The SDP, long viewed as stagnated and conservative, has been unsuccessful in renewing its image, so seems likely that the Finns Party with their focus on workers and entrepreneurs won over many of their former supporters. Another change worth observing, as Rice notes as well, is the shift of balance from urban to rural politics. The rise of the agrarian Centre Party ensured the visibility of the rural-urban division: only one of the 49 MPs of the most popular party in the country comes from the capital city. To sum up, while the election result is certainly not very promising for the future immigration policies to say the least, the voters cannot necessarily be blamed for unashamed denial.

Finally, even though the Finns Party can celebrate pushing through some of their agenda in the coalition negotiations, the NCP is by no means the loser here. As Korkki suggests, Sipilä has managed to mediate in a way that both the Finns Party and the NCP have been able to feel included. But what is in store for a populist party that becomes part of the Establishment it used to protest against? Dialogue and argument that the Finns Party now have to participate in might “tame” the party, or at least keep its more extreme tendencies in check.

While the Finns Party have attempted to alter the national discourse on immigration and the EU, this may be a time where they must adjust their own ideas to achieve a message acceptable to their coalition partners. However, if the concessions the party will have to make are too great for members and supporters, fractures inside the party are likely to appear. Regardless, the voters elected change, and now it is up to the three musketeers to deliver. Payday might turn out to be different than the Finns Party expected. 

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