Finland will have parliamentary elections next April. With this blog I will be presenting some of the election debates and political issues that are topical in Finland. Along with me director Ville Kopra and coordinator Elisa Lipponen from the Kalevi Sorsa Foundation will contribute to this debate.
In my first blog contribution I will focus on the rise of the populist and anti-immigration True Finns party during the ongoing electoral term, which overall is an exceptional phenomenon in the Finnish political system. Secondly, I make a few remarks about the political and social climate in Finland, which could explain the True Finns phenomen.
The Finnish political system has been characterized by the stability of the “big three parties” since the parliamentary election of 1983. Big three refers to social democrats, the Centre Party and the National Coalition party. Two out of the three big parties have formed the basis of the governments and governments have typically run a full term.
This electoral term signifies a possible break, even a paradigm shift, of this development, as the True Finns have gained polls support at the expense of the big three. The True Finns poll support has risen from around 5 percent in 2007 to around 15 percent in November 2010.
Distrust towards the political establishment and the EU gains ground
One of the main questions around the up-coming election is, if the True Finns party is able to reproduce their polls success in the elections. This is a tricky question, because the party still lacks well-known politicians besides their immensely popular leader Timo Soini. Soini is running in the largest constituency of Uusimaa, but will his success turn into votes in other constituencies?
The political climate during the current electoral term has boosted the True Finns. The Centre Party and the National Coalition Party have been involved in precarious party financing scandals, which has led to the serious erosion of trust in the Finnish political system and the political establishment in particular.
The social democrats have been in the opposition and less involved in the party financing scandals. Despite this the social democrats are still seen as a part of the political establishment. In practice a lack of trust in the political establishment often translates into a lack of trust in the social democrats.
One of the biggest challenges is: how can one build a credible social democratic alternative in the “age of distrust”? The polls tell that many citizens view the True Finns party’s opposition policies more favourably than the social democratic alternative. On the other hand, people can only name general anti-immigration and anti-EU stances, which the True Finns have thematized in the opposition.
The general claim in the media is that there are no alternatives within the “old political parties”. The public eye has largely ignored the fact that the social democrats have consistently drafted detailed budget alternatives unlike the True Finns` whose leader Soini currently sits in the European parliament. Isn’t politics full of paradoxes!
Many Finns are not that well-informed about the exact content of the True Finns policies, but they relate to the straightforward and folksy style of Timo Soini. Soini has written his graduate thesis about the populist politics of the Finnish Rural Party, which had its heyday in the 1970`s and 1980`s. The Finnish Rural Party can be seen as the predecessor of the True Finns movement.
The ongoing crisis of the Eurozone has also strengthened the True Finns in the eyes of the public. The public mood has been very critical towards the Finnish involvement in the eurozone rescue and stabilization packages, which has given them an opportunity to say: hate to say I told you so!
Polarizing identity politics enter the political scene
“Age of insecurity” also play a part in the success of the True Finns. There are those who feel they are part of the future high-skilled knowledge economy and those who feel threatened by all the changes.
For the hipsters in the Helsinki inner city words like “international” (kansainvälisyys) or “multicultural” may bring back memories from their Erasmus year in Madrid or in Prague. For many people in the suburbs the words may refer to tensions around migration in their neighbourhood.
As in many other countries the politics of insecurity has taken a form of polarizing cultural identity politics. During the fall of 2010 Finns debated immigration and gay rights in a very polarizing manner, which in some ways reinforced conservative sentiments in Finland.
In the immigration debate the Green League and the True Finns were “the opposing poles”. Contrary to the expectations of some green politicians, only the conservative side, the True Finns, benefitted politically from the confrontation.
Almost everyone has a strong opinion on minority rights or immigration. To some extent these confrontations could be seen as a necessary part of the democratization and emancipation process, which in future could guarantee equal rights for all.
To name an example: as a consequence of anti-gay comments by the Christian democrat leader Päivi Räsänen and conservative priests, tens of thousands of Finns left the Lutheran church during the fall of 2010. The church elections in November 2010 received mainstream media attention for the first time in decades and many liberal-minded young people were elected to the church councils.
Up to this point the True Finns leader Timo Soini has held somewhat modest stance on immigration policy, but many True Finns candidates and local politicians have openly differentialist and preferentialist agenda. The far-right is active in the blogs and internet forums and they do their best to blur the distinction between legitimate criticism of immigration policy and outright racism. Media has been surprisingly quiet about this dualism within “Soini`s party”.
Re-establishing the sense of security
In the current political climate in Finland it is rather difficult to address, politicize and discuss the structural issues, which are causing the economic and social insecurities.
The poll results from Kymenlaakso region seem to support the hypothesis that the True Finns are partly a popular revolt against fast structural change. Many people fear of losing their jobs and welfare and they yearn for more security.
Some of Timo Soini`s one-liners can be considered to be “kapitalismuskritisch”. He says it is not fair that the Finns are paying for the mistakes of Wall Street guys with cravats. He’s also “standing up for the welfare state”. Then again the True Finns have not presented visible alternatives in economic or social policy, which could solve the current unemployment problem.
In order to resist the rise of the True Finns, the social democratic movement needs a new strategy to address the feeling of insecurity in the era of structural change. Finland`s export-sector and much of its large middle class may be the “winners of globalization”, but there are new inequalities and insecurities, which require solutions.
The so called Nordic model of flexibility and security works better in the greater Helsinki region, where unemployment is fairly low and where it is fairly easy to change your job. The impact of an industrial factory closure is more serious in small regional towns, where the unemployment is already be high and where entire towns might have been built around one or two factories.
Finland has witnessed a sharp rise of inequality since the early 1990`s. The rise of inequality has not led to political mobilization, even though many people have become anxious about the current development.
If the social democrats want to mobilize “ordinary Finns” in the suburbs again, they must convince people that in the coming years they are able to bring about a more equal society, social change and that they are the capable of changing the hegemony which has led to rising inequalities in the society.