In December 2010, I wrote about the rise of the True Finns movement in SEJ. I argued that if Timo Soini`s True Finns are able to mobilize their polls support in the general election on April 17th, that we might be witnessing paradigmatic changes in the Finnish political system.
I must admit that it was a big surprise to me and to most political commentators in Finland that the True Finns were able to get as much as 19 percent of the popular vote. The True Finns’ support rose by 15 percent and they became the third biggest party in parliament just after the National Coalition Party (NCP) and the Finnish Social Democratic Party (SDP). The Centre Party and the Green League saw their support drop significantly, which means that they are likely to be heading for a spell in opposition.
The leader of the SDP, Jutta Urpilainen, stated that the True Finns belong to the government and NCP`s Jyrki Katainen added that a government consisting of the three biggest parties seems likely.
The process to form a coalition government started this week. The leader of the biggest party, Jyrki Katainen, handed seven questions for potential coalition partners. The main questions dealt with the Eurozone bailout mechanism and the state of the public finances. The parties are expected to answer until next Monday and the actual negotiations are expected to start on May 9th.
The Finnish consensual tradition of politics means ‘the election winners’, the True Finns, are expected to be included in the government. Before the election the Green League was the only political party to categorically exclude government cooperation with the True Finns. There is an interesting debate on Jon Worth`s blog on the tradition of consensus in Finnish politics.
There exists a prevailing rationale not to let the True Finns ‘slip out of government responsibility’. After all, historical experience tells that government responsibility led to an erosion of the populist Rural Party’s popularity in the 1980`s. History might not always repeat itself, but it will be interesting to see how Timo Soini is able defend the government’s compromises in parliament.
Soini is a charismatic anti-establishment politician rooted in the rural populism
The issue concerning the Portuguese bailout has made the Finnish elections front-page news all over Europe. In the articles following the election result the True Finns have been described as ‘conservative’, ‘far-right’, ‘populist’ and ‘nationalistic’, ‘anti-immigration’ or ‘anti-European’.
A number of Finnish commentators have criticized the Finnish experts for having incorrectly interpreted the nature of the True Finns movement for the foreign press. In the current political climate, this, it has been claimed, can strengthen feelings of distrust.
So let’s start with easy definitions. Timo Soini is a populist by self-definition. He wrote his master’s thesis about the populism of the Finnish Rural Party and this is where he is politically rooted. Soini and other supporters of the Rural Party established the True Finns in 1995. The power of the ‘old parties’ and the ‘establishment’ is his main target.
The True Finns leader Timo Soini instantly defined the electoral victory of the True Finns as “jytky”, which is a perfect example of Timo Soini`s rhetorical wisecracks. It is difficult even for the Finns to understand what the buzzword actually means and the tabloids are now speculating over the origin and exact meaning of the word.
Finnish commentator Teppo Eskelinen speculates that Soini`s populism was able to mobilize the unstructured anti-establishment feeling of those culturally excluded. I think there is a degree of accuracy about this interpretation. The left might have promised to increase levels of social benefit, but voting for the True Finns offered a chance to slap the elites on the wrist.
I also would call Soini a conservative. It’s no secret that Finland will be a more conservative country in the coming years. It will be more difficult to achieve reforms, which will improve the position of the minorities.
The True Finns, prefentialism and welfare state chauvinism
Last week the largest Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat published a study, in which the ‘election engine’ answers of the new MP`s were analyzed. In line with expectations the True Finns MPs were ‘conservative’ in questions concerning the EU, minority rights etc. But it was clear that in socio-economic questions, regarding the welfare state, majority of the True Finns were ‘on the left’.
To a certain extent the True Finns election victory can also be considered a revolt against socio-economic inequality. Their election manifesto states that they stand for the Nordic welfare state. In tax policy, for example, they share commonalities with the leftist parties. The next electoral term might witness the emergence of social policies that address inequality.
There are, however, more problematic aspects to the welfare state ideology of the True Finns. They actively take advantage of preferentialist rhetorics. They are right to criticize the rise of inequality in Finland. But in the following sentence many True Finns will say that we should prioritize the Finnish poor over immigrants or EU bailouts. This is a classic case of preferentialism. Of course the True Finns were not the only ones using such line of argument.
The True Finns are often referred as the new ‘workers’ party’. It is true that they were able to mobilize part of the ‘working class’, but in reality they have not presented any solutions or proposals to improve the quality of the Finnish work-life. It was another contradiction left unnoticed in the election commentaries.
The strategy of the True Finns has been to put the blame on the rise of inequality and precarious working conditions on immigrant workers. They played the weak against the weak.
The questionable dualism within Soini`s party
It is true that the True Finns phenomenon has increased voter turnout. Many people that have never voted before voted for the True Finns. Protest and distrust were channelled into voting activity, which can be considered a good thing.
On the other hand recognizing the democratic mandate given to the True Finns should not mean that one is no more legitimate to criticize the True Finns and their policies. At the moment there are commentators in Finland, which see that respecting the election result means that the ‘liberal elites’ should stop criticizing the True Finns.
In the current situation I have found the writings of the Dutch political scientist Rene Cuperus helpful. He has analyzed the fragmentation of the social democratic or left-wing electorate into social liberal academic professionals and to traditional trade-unionists. There is this dispute going on between left-wing cosmopolitanism and welfare state preferentialism, which will characterize Finnish politics in the coming years.
It must be noted that there are significant far-right forces in the True Finns along with conservatives that aim to strenghten the welfare state. The essential question is: how will this affect the position of minorities in Finland? The ultra-national Suomen Sisu now has four MPs. The radical critic of immigration policies and multiculturalism, Jussi Hallo-Aho, is now the chairman of the parliamentary committee, whose responsibility covers immigration legislation.
I am afraid that the new far-right MPs in the True Finns rooster will make blatant racism more visible in the Finnish public eye. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, the strategy of the Finnish far-right is to rebrand their differentialist opinions as a legitimate immigration critique.
On the other hand defining the True Finns as a far-right party is problematic because of the fact that Timo Soini, who has built the movement almost single-handedly, has not used aggressive anti-minority rhetoric. Many consider him to be a modest politician in the interest of the ‘common man’.