Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dispatches from the northern front. The Finnish general election of 2011

What it's all about
So most people will have seen the Finnish election result by now. The success of the populist-right wing True Finns has made the headlines around the world, particularly in relation to whether they will enter government and block the EU financial assistance package to Portugal. But here are a few thoughts on the election from an outsider who has been watching Finnish politics for quite a long time now.

Firstly, this is PR – everyone’s a winner or loser depending on your outlook on life. Yes, the True Finns hugely increased their vote, but they still only got 19% of the vote. Less than one in five voting Finns agrees with them. If you think the True Finns are scary or wrong or silly, then don’t worry – 4 out 5 voting Finns agree with you.

The leader of the SDP said that “there’s no shame in getting silver”. She’s right – they came second, not too bad considering how poor the SDP has been looking in recent times. But let’s not forget, they came second by 0.1% - hardly clear blue water.

There's a foreign minister lurking in my local coffee shop! Seemed to work though, he got the second biggest personal vote in the country.

Likewise, the leader of Kokoomus, the National Coalition Party, was proud to announce that it was a historic night for them becoming the biggest party in the country for the first time. And this is also true, so congrats to Kokoomus, but they also lost votes from the last general election, and were only clear of the second place SDP by 1.3%.

So as I said: that’s PR for you – it’s fair but no one is even close to being a majority on their own and even the winner can only fairly claim to speak for one in five of the electorate. No party has a ‘natural’ right to be in government in such a system – if the second, third and fourth placed parties got together they would have a simple majority in the parliament, and could exclude the party that actually ‘won’ the election. This is unlikely to happen due to tradition and expectation, but it could happen.

Standing around in the rain, getting ignored. Isn't politics great?

At the moment it is suggested that Kokoomus, the True Finns and the SDP will try to form a government if they can agree on a programme. This is likely to produce all sorts of odd dynamics. Timo Soini, the True Finns leader, has said that he sees his party being close to the SDP, and economically this is true – both want to defend the welfare state and are happy to raise taxes to do so. It’s just that the True Finns don’t want any outsiders joining that welfare state (“this is a local welfare state for local people! There’s nothing for you here.”). The SDP have also been playing with Euroscepticism in the last Parliament – voting against the Greek bailout for example. There is nothing new about leftwing parties positioning themselves against the EU – as anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the British Labour Party well knows. The SDP were from early 90s to 2003, under Lipponen’s prime ministership, very pro-EU, but the left of party such as President Halonen and former foreign minister Tuomioja always had their doubts. SDP watchers can perhaps correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the current leader Urpilainen and party secretary Jungner are identified more with the Lipponen-wing of the party, so are perhaps not particularly eurosceptic, but nevertheless the party has tacked that way, and it will make a government with Kokoomus and the True Finns ‘interesting’ when EU matters will be so central.

Anti-politics in Vantaa. I think we can put the perpetrator down as a "non of the above" type of guy.

The True Finns in government are the proverbial wild card. Tomi Huhtanen neatly puts it: “The True Finns’ party programme is actually rather mainstream; the problem is that hardly anyone in the party adheres to it.” So much focus was on Timo Soini (who as a result took the biggest personal vote in the country), less attention has been paid to those who came in on his coat tails. Quite possibly some will be hardworking, attentive MPs who regardless of their politics, will be doing their best for the people who voted for them. Others, well, perhaps less so. A number of times in the past Soini has had to distance himself from the antics, at times openly racist antics, of others in his party. Now with more media attention, there is a good chance similar will be seen and even if they do keep discipline, virtually all are new to national politics and the media will be happy to show up gaps in their knowledge.

Perhaps more importantly are the tensions within the party. Jussi Halla-Aho did well in the elections with a strong personal vote, and is well known for his outspoken anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim views. Halla-Aho’s association with the True Finns is complex, in the past he has stood on their ticket, but without being a party member – but now he seems to be in the party with both feet. His internationally influenced anti-Islam politics is closer to the politics of Geert Wilders in Holland or Vlaams Belang in Flanders, than it is to the rural-populist tradition that Timo Soini comes from. There have been and remain some tensions within the True Finns between the young Turks (yes, there is some irony to calling them that) who are Halla-Aho’s supporters and I guess what you can call the old guard. Soini is the man of the moment, but as Taneli Heikka perceptively notes that whilst “Soini has said he is happy with the current state of affairs with immigration policy, […]seven out of 39 [new True Finn] MP's have signed a staunch anti-immigration manifesto, and they want more. A government with True Finns will have to go for tougher measures on immigration, or the party (and the government) faces collapse. Mr Soini knows this.”


Yeti said...

That was a good analysis of the situation. It will be interesting to see if the two camps in the True Finns party, Soini vs Halla-aho, can stick together. Though the xenophobic side did play a role in the election, the main thing was still a general dissatisfaction with how the society has developed during the last decade.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to know their definition of "foreigner". Does that include 2nd generation Somali/Turkish/Russian/whatever children born and raised in Finland...especially if their skin isn't white but they were born and raised in Finland.
Secondly, my wife is Finnish and our kids have Finnish passports but we live in mainland Europe....will our kids be treated as "foreigners"?
As always with these extreme groups, they probably didn't think through all the angles of their statements.....

DJS said...

Thank you for a analysis of the situation. I've been following your blog for a while - because of the outdoor stuff - but this week I was hoping you'd write something about the election.
Interesting times ahead indeed, especially for those of us who are swedish speaking finns. Do you have any comment on that part?

Have a good day.

Tom said...

Congratulations to the True Finns!

Anonymous: The True Finns are opposed to further "humanitarian" immigration, not current immigrants or further skilled worker immigration. As Timo Soini said, the True Finns are not extremists. If your kids have Finnish passports, then they're Finnish citizens. If you're married to a Finnish citizen and have Finnish citizen children, you can apply for citizenship. I did so from the U.S. on the basis of my mother being a Finnish citizen (American father). The process was simple and inexpensive.

Anonymous said...


It does not matter if or if not they include people living here that have a Finnish passport and look foreign. As they don't specify the difference, it's a quite unpleasant situation nonetheless. It makes staying in the country for a long time more unlikely. I'm myself from central Europe and don't really appreciate general 'foreigner bashing' because of that.

'Foreigners don't learn the language and don't integrate' - well some of them maybe, but you'll have them everywhere. I happen to know it.

'Foreigners ...'

Now the thing with highly skilled foreigners is, that they can afford to change the country if the political situation changes in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. Those that stay are the humanitarian immigrants.

Just my 2c.