The Odd Nord Out: The Fall of the Finnish Far-Right that Wasn’t
Timo Soini, co-founder and long-serving leader of the Eurosceptic Finns party (formerly known as the True Finns), may well know more about populism than anyone else in Finland. He is a naturally gifted orator and agitator as well as a deviously clever tactician, whose booming voice and savvy trademark remarks go unmatched in ordinarily dry Finnish politics.
A true career politician who received his training in the world of professional politics, Mr. Soini is by no means a man of the people, but he does know how to speak to them. His carefully considered public persona and gestures, speeches that say nothing and everything, and blog (named “Ploki”, as to mimic how a folksy Finn would pronounce the foreign word) are all props in an ongoing political play, in which he is the leading man, the director, the stage manager and, in an election year, the usher.
With general elections coming up in late April, however, Mr. Soini has felt the downward pull of the polls. While the most recent data predicts a minor increase from early January, the Finns party is not even close to the numbers of the last elections. Mr. Soini, who is well-versed in electoral math, knows his odds this close to election day, even if he refuses to count himself out: “I’ve started from even worse positions”, he admitted on his blog on 26 February, “and won”.
Four years ago, however, the numbers added up very differently. The 2011 general elections took the country by storm and made the Finns the third largest group in the parliament. They toppled five other parties, including the centre-right that has been a significant force in Finnish politics since the country’s independence in 1917, and came neck in neck with the Social Democrats, to whom they lost by a margin of only 1500 votes.
But who are the Finns? Why did they win in 2011? And why do they seem to be losing now? In the international media, the rise of the Finns party is nearly always associated with the rise of the European far-right. Consider, for example, headlines noting the ‘meteoric rise of Europe’s radical right’, or the ‘sudden rise of far right in EU parliament’.
The problem with headlines like these is not that they are untrue—there has indeed been an upsurge of nationalist parties in some but not all parts of Europe since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, which has culminated in several national ballots and in the 2014 European ‘earthquake’ elections. It is that the truth that they offer is incomplete, and their presentation of an equivalence of “far-right” parties misleading. Hungary’s Jobbik is anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, and anti-Roma. Greece’s Golden Dawn is neo-Nazi and supports protectionism and economic state intervention. The Dutch Freedom Party is economically liberal and anti-Islamist. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) is anti-immigration. All of these are thrust, in mass media and public discourse, under the label of “far-right”, which, as academics like to point out, would benefit from more nuance. Before we declare the fall of the far-right in Finland and attribute that to the Nordic moral, we should consider whether it is right to call the Finns far-right at all.
The parties that occupy the third-most seats in the Danish, Swedish and Finnish parliaments are regularly characterized by the international media as far-right. Both the Danish People’s Party and the Sweden Democrats were recently featured on Huffington Post’s Field Guide To Europe’s Radical Right Political Parties, while the Finns party was ranked fourth on the same publication’s list of the 9 Scariest Far-Right Parties Now In The European Parliament last year, right behind the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.
In the media, all three parties are usually and understandably discussed with regard to their statements about immigration, which, in all three cases, have xenophobic, racist, and extreme-nationalist undertones. Therefore, it is not surprising that foreign news outlets as well as educated Europeans tend to group the three together, and to view them all as manifestations of the anti-migrant European far-right. They are not, however, the same, and the odd Nord out is the Finns party, which contains elements of far-right politics similar to Sweden and Denmark, but has, at least so far, not been defined by them.
Both the Danish People’s Party and the Sweden Democrats are first and foremost anti-immigration parties and have maintained immigration-control as their top political priority. The Sweden Democrats, which won 29 new seats in the parliament in the 2014 general elections , has a radical background and history, with well-known roots in the neo-Nazi and skinhead movement. While the party’s elite has switched from boots to suits and tried to distance themselves from their neo-Nazi background, they remain openly hostile towards migration generally and Islam specifically. The Danish People’s Party, which capitalizes on a strong anti-Muslim sentiment in Denmark, is polling well and slowly prepares for the general election that has to be held by mid-September.
The roots of the Finns party, by comparison, lie deep in the tradition of agrarian Finnish populism, in which the party-leader, Mr. Soini, received his political education (in addition to the University of Helsinki, where he studied the successes of Finnish populism as a 26-year-old graduate student). He stands firmly against Brussels and apart as a conservative Catholic in primarily Lutheran Finland. As such, he worked hard to mobilize his MPs to vote against the Equal Marriage Act.
Immigration, however, is not high up on his agenda and he regards it “first and foremost as an economic problem”. There is no evidence that he is or would be against immigration and, unlike the Sweden Democrats, he does not talk about Islam or Islamism. In fact, on 4 March 2015, he said in a television interview that there are not too many immigrants in Finland and was “actually surprised that more immigrants are not interested to come here”.
Admittedly, and, given these comments, ironically, Mr. Soini’s own party is surely responsible for making Finland less friendly to immigrants. In the 2011 parliament elections a number of Finns candidates who do have far-right and xenophobic ideas about immigration and particularly about Islam were also elected. Some of them were also members of an extreme-nationalist organization and ran into problems with the law about their inflammatory comments concerning migrants: James Hirvisaari was found guilty of inciting racial hatred already in 2010 and was expelled from the Finns party in 2013 after he admitted taking a photo of his friend posing in Nazi salute in front of the parliament. Jussi Halla-aho, a current Member of the European parliament, was found guilty of defamation of religion in 2009 and for inciting racial hatred in 2012.
However, both Mr. Hirvisaari and Mr. Halla-aho seem to have more in common with the Sweden Democrats than they do with Mr. Soini, who actually defines the party line. While Mr. Soini has distanced himself and his party from the Sweden Democrats and refused to collaborate with them in the European parliament, Mr. Halla-aho welcomed their victory in the 2014 elections and, this January, publicly criticized the Finns’ leader for not “caring about immigration”, asking that immigration should be made the party’s primary election theme.
This debate reflects not only a division within the Finns’ ranks over the issue of immigration, but also Mr. Soini’s unwillingness to turn the Finns into a one-theme political party, which he would rather maintain as a broader Eurosceptic movement that speaks to a base of less affluent voters. He hopes to do what he and his party did in the 2011 elections: succeed in part because of immigration, but mainly because of a demonstrated ability to access and articulate the public’s frustration with the bailouts in the Eurozone, and because the other parties were mired in a campaign finance crisis that had put their integrity in doubt. The 2011 elections were about a moment of protest, in and to which Mr. Soini and his then-True Finns were able to speak. That moment has passed, but not because of a change in attitudes toward the far-right. It was not the far-right’s moment in the first place.
The Finns party can perhaps be characterized as the populist right that has radical rightist elements in its ranks, but to call it a far-right party, and to suggest that its loss of support reflects the fall of the far-right in Finland, is misleading. Unlike in Sweden and Denmark, what we have so far seen in Finland so far has been the rise of populism, not a true rise of the far-right. This is not because Finland would be more tolerant towards migrants than its Nordic neighbours, but because the anti-immigration movement has not had a similar momentum as in some other countries. As the Eurobatometer from last December reveals, only 3 percent of the Finnish population see immigration as being among the top two most important issues facing their country today, while the respective number is 34 percent for Denmark and 24 percent for Sweden. As the number of immigrants in Finland is relatively low, this momentum may or may not come. It is possible that Finland may still prove fertile ground for the far-right. But it will not be, and has not been, because of Timo Soini, who has, true to his agrarian roots, been trying to grow something else entirely.
Photo credit: President of the European Council (Creative Commons).