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.


Are Finns showing their ”True” colors?

julkaistu 30.8.2012 brittiläisen Policy Network -ajatushautomon kotisivuilla.

Narrow national interests led Finland to join the EU. Now those same narrow national interests are shaping Finland’s domestic political response to the Euro crisis

The Finnish political landscape witnessed a seismic shift in the 2011 general elections, when the populist anti-EU party Perussuomalaiset (True Finns) became the third largest political force in the country with a landslide of 19,1% of the total vote (+15% points) under their hugely popular party leader, Mr Timo Soini.

Their surge had already been predicted in the polls, but was seen in its full force only on election evening, with the rise of the True Finns and the concurrent demise of the Centre Party from being formerly the biggest party to 4th place. After the elections the True Finns assumed the role of leading opposition party, concentrating their opposition policy on European issues.

As with the rest of the Finnish political landscape in general, the True Finns party is difficult to categorize and is often simply put in the continuum of the rising far-right forces in Europe. First of all, their background is in the former Finnish Rural Party (SMP) which experienced a similar surge in the elections in the early 70’s. The rhetoric and topics of the current True Finn party are a mirror of their SMP predecessors. SMP campaigned with anti-elitist and anti-establisment rhetoric and under a charismatic leader, Mr Veikko Vennamo. They got most of their support from low-income rural families, which have traditionally been the core base for the Centre Party vote.

In this way, it is very difficult to stamp the True Finns as simply another far-right party. It is true, that the party holds within it’s ranks MPs convicted for “hate speech” against minorities and believers of Islam and that the growing number of Finnish anti-immigrant groups have found homes in it. MP Mr Jussi Halla-aho is the most visible member of this wing. Halla-aho`s politics can be seen as part of the European Counter-Jihad movement, which has been built around the claim, seen tragically elsewhere in Europe, that we are witnessing the “Islamization of Europe”.

The True Finns also contain a strong element of old SMP-style politicians, who present themselves as the “voice of the forgotten/basic normal people”. Their rhetoric draws a distinction between the people (True Finns) vs the Elite (all established political forces). The European Union, the Euro and immigration are then taken as examples of the ways in which this perceived elite is “lying” to the people, making them the guinea pigs for the elites’ ideological pursuits.

The True Finns have in very many ways adopted the role of a social-conservative, nationalist anti-establishment party. They, at least at the programme level, are leaning left in tax policies and are heavily criticizing the retrenchment of the welfare state. At the same time they have been aggressively advocating against many symbolically important issues such as proposals concerning same-sex marriage and euthanasia. In this way they have subsumed also the religious themes traditionally occupied by the small Christian Democratic Party.

However, these “stands” are also very much the personal opinions of the party’s leader and it is questionable how much they actually drive individual party MP’s or local council members. For starters, the anti-immigration wing of the party is, by contrast, advocating very neo-liberal economic policies.

The True Finns influence on other parties has been a big debate in the Finnish media. In particular, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has been criticized by its political opponents for adopting positions and ways of doing politics closer to the True Finns than used to be the case before the True Finns spectacular rise. This has, however, not been seen in image polling, where the SDP, currently the minor party in the ruling coalition, is still considered as a responsible party of government by the general public.

It is however notable, that the Finnish SDP has been adopting a more critical stand towards the current state of the EU. This can be seen best in the way the Finnish government has demanded collateral for its support of the rescue packages designed for financially troubled EU member states. The SDP has also sharpened its own political message while being a party of government. This has been a cause of concern to the prime minister’s party, the centre-right Kokoomus (National Coalition Party), which after a long reign in polls, is increasingly being challenged by the resurgent SDP.

It is a matter of debate whether this change has to do with the reaction to the True Finns’ rise, or because of a genuine policy renewal of the SDP itself. There has been growing disillusionment concerning the current state of the union policies within the party, and also among the general public, over the last years. The bail-out packages have been seen as the rescue of the big banks and investors, not the people and the welfare systems. Many within the SDP ranks have been interested in a union with stronger powers to contain market forces, not to keep on liberating them and paying for the dysfunctions with the taxpayer’s purse.

This does not, however, remove the fact that the current SDP/Finnish line towards the EU and the euro crisis maintains a strong national benefit element and is directed more by a national than a European interest. This could be interpreted as a phenomena influenced by the True Finns, and as a line which can’t stand genuinely intellectual scrutiny, if seen from the European perspective. Finland lacks a response to the crisis as a whole, and seems to be more than fine with this fact, focusing on its own interest in a quite narrow way.