Populist tide still rising high in Finland

julkaistu 23. 10.2012 brittiläisen ajatushautomon Policy Networkin kotisivuilla osana kuukausittaista State of the Left -sarjaa.

With municipal elections taking place in 3 weeks, the polls in Finland have seen the continuing rise of the True Finns party at the expense of almost all other parties. The True Finns are currently fighting for 3rd place with the traditional municipal political force the Centre Party, right behind the main government parties, the rightist Kokoomus and the Social Democrats.

The gap has closed in the last few weeks, and in any case it seems unavoidable that the True Finns will almost triple their numbers on the municipal councils across the country. They have already made significant gains in presenting candidates in almost every municipality in Finland, exceeding even their own expectations.

If the final results end up as the polls currently suggest it will be a major change in the Finnish political landscape, resulting in a much more fragmented political system at the municipality level of governance. The future political outcome also remains a mystery, since the True Finn’s political line at the local level has much more to do with personalities than the actual policies of the party.

The leader of the party, Mr. Timo Soini, has declared these municipal elections as an elections on Europe and the euro crisis and Finland’s response to it. As absurd as this might sound, it has gained a certain ground as a symbolic issue. At the same time when the government is planning it’s much-criticized municipal reforms and public services in many municipalities are finding  themselves under funded, the message which states that Finnish peoples’ “hard-earned money” is being shipped to the Mediterranean in support of the faltering euro project, finds a willing audience. The euro crisis and the proposed antidotes are symbols and examples of an estranged political elite, far removed from normal citizens and their concerns.

The outcome of the upcoming municipal elections will thus surely have an influence on the national agenda. The main centre of attention will concern the fate of the municipal reforms presented by the six-party coalition government. True Finn gains might not endanger these reforms, since the other opposition party and the traditional flag-bearers of agrarian Finland, the Centre Party, are expected to fare especially poorly in these elections. This is because the True Finn candidate gains have been made primaril in their countryside strongholds.

Although the Centre Party has made opposing municipal reforms their only focus in the campaign, they have found it hard to be seen as a force capable of stopping the reforms altogether since the whole reform agenda was originally initiated during their long reign in power. The replacement of one opposing force with another will not make much difference if the government parties can keep their own ranks in order.

The likely True Finn surge will most probably not have very significant consequences on the already hard Finnish line on the euro crisis. Finnish Minister of Finance and Social Democratic Party chairwoman, Jutta Urpilainen has already stated before that Finland will not support the leveraging of the ESM and for the government to change their position, the issue would first have to pass the Finnish parliament.

As the election draws near no clear domestic “big” topic has yet emerged to take the attention away from the Europe .Unless such a big issues emerges to steal the limelight, this will, in all cases, work in favor of the True Finns since they represent the “natural pole” of this discussion.

But what is significant in all this is the result from one recent study which shows the Finnish public still sees Europe and the EU as important. A clear majority of citizens still favor both EU and euro membership. Their opinions have grown more critical towards the content of European policies, but they still see European cooperation as an important tool.

This provides an important lesson for political decision-makers. Finnish people do not, as a whole, wish to depart the European project. They now simply view the current state and direction of European cooperation through a more critical lense. This suggests that constructive criticism of the current content of EU policies has a possibility to attract support. At the program and action level, the Finnish Social Democrats would be in a best position to present such options, but these elections look like coming too early and too focused on the bail-out packages for this discussion to begin.

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