Newspaper headlines the day after Finland’s parliamentary elections. Photo: Jonathan Nackstranda/AFP/Getty
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The rise and fall of the far right in Finland

The Nordic moral.

“Revolution!” So blazed the headlines in Finland following the 2011 general election. “This is a big, big bang in Finnish politics,” said Jan Sundberg, a political science professor from Helsinki University. The BBC’s Europe editor Gavin Hewitt claimed “a tremor hit the EU”.

When the eurosceptic, nationalistic right-wing party True Finns emerged from near-obscurity to become the third-largest party in Finland in 2011, it seemed that the country had been radically altered. Founded in the mid-Nineties, and competing with parties well-established in Finland for over a hundred years, True Finns shattered expectations when they won 39 of the Finnish Parliament’s 200 seats, compared to just five in 2007. Though they had no majority to speak of, Helsingen Sanomat, the largest newspaper in Finland, described the party's leader and founder, Timo Soini, as “one historic victor above all others”.

Timo Soini was certainly unlike anything previously seen in Finnish politics. If the True Finns can be described as Finland’s Ukip, Soini could certainly give Farage a run for his money. At 6’2” and 18 stone, Soini is a bear-like man often photographed with a pint in hand and a Millwall FC scarf draped around his neck: he saw them play aged 14, and insists he was drawn to their blue and white strip matching the Finnish flag, not their colourful reputation. The only institution he reveres more devoutly than his football team is the Catholic Church, a further anomaly in a primarily Lutheran country. His appeals to working people (the party name True Finns, Perussuomalaiset, translates more accurately as “ordinary” or “regular” Finns) and rogueish charisma ensured that, in a crowd of bland, traditional politicians, Soini stood out.

But four years distance makes his party’s win seem significantly less triumphant. A month after the election, the True Finns announced they would not be entering a coalition with the other two biggest parties, the National Coalition, the Social Democratic Party, due to irreconcilable differences over EU policies: the NCP had been a strong advocate of financially supporting Portugal, Greece and other indebted European countries, while the Finns consistently campaigned on their refusal to “throw away” Finnish taxpayers’ money to the EU. 

In opposition, and rebranded as simply “the Finns”, the far-right revolution began to fade. The Finns soon found they outside of a coaliton, they were powerless. Meanwhile, they suffered a long string of very public controversies. In 2013, their MP James Hirvisaari was expelled for photographing of a friend posing in a Nazi salute outside Parliament, having previously been reprimanded for a series of Islamophobic and rascist comments. Another high-ranking Finns Party MP, Jussi Halla-aho, has been investigated several times for inciting racial hatred.

Timo Soini’s blokeish charm has been unable to withstand the weight of these embarrassments. As the leader of an ineffectual and out-of-touch party, he looks increasingly like a bad joke. Briefly this month, the second most popular free app in Finland was Happy Flappy Soini. The game’s opening screen sees a red-faced, grinning Soini give you a cheery double-thumbs-up (a visual reminder of the images plastered over the newspapers after the 2011 “victory”), before he quite literally loses his head as it zooms from his shoulders into the sky – as in Flappy Bird, the player frantically taps to keep it in the air.

His appeal to the Finnish working class has been used to explain his earlier surge in popularity – but Soini also got lucky. The party that saw the most losses in 2011, losses which translated into gains for the Finns, was the Centre party, which had dramatically lost support after it was revealed their successful 2007 election campaign had received thousands of euros in questionable corporate funding. 

Erkka Railo, an associate professor at the Centre for Parliamentary Studies in Finlad and commentator on the rise and fall of the Finns party, told me that this supposed political revolution led by the Finns was “a perfect storm”: 

The Portuguese government fell three weeks before the Finnish elections, and the Euro seemed to fall apart, which made Timo Soini, who had been saying for over ten years that the Euro was doomed to fail, seem like a great prophet. Simultaneously, The Centre party had been mired in several scandals, including the receipt of unclear donations by shady businessmen. Plus, the economic crisis hit old industrial areas particularly badly, which prompted the working class to leave the Social Democrats and move to support the Finns party in protest.

Circumstances have changed since 2011. In opposition, the Finns have been overshadowed by the return of the Centre party, who have seen their popularity nearly double from 15 per cent, following the funding scandal, to 26 per cent. As a result, the Finns have seen their supporters fall away, now hovering at around 14 per cent. As Railo tells me, protest votes for the Finns had run their course: “Once the Centre party got its act together, their voters returned from the foray of supporting the Finns.”

Meanwhile, the conversation around Europe in Finland has changed. Now, all the major parties stand united in their harsh opposition of forgiving Greek debt. The debate surrounding the EU has sunk into the background as concerns about Finland's shrinking economy take centre stage. And when it comes to something as series as national economic strategy, the Finns are certainly not seen as the reliable option.

As the Finns’ support continues to wane, their fortunes might cast a shadow across the surge of populist reactionary far right politics across Europe. Railo condemns the party to a slow crawl out of Finnish politics. “They're bound to lose the elections. That may, in turn, result in another four years in opposition, which may be too much for many of its supporters to bear.” Protest votes are usually a register of temporary discontent, and when rebellious outsiders attempt to enter the mainstream, they too often reveal major incompetencies. For Finland, at least, the far-right dream is already becoming a distant memory.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Why Labour's rise could threaten Nicola Sturgeon's independence dream

As the First Minister shelves plans for a second vote, does she join the list of politicians who bet on an anti-Brexit dividend that failed to materialise?

The nights are getting longer, and so are generations. The independence referendum sequel will happen after, not before the Brexit process is complete, Nicola Sturgeon announced yesterday.

It means that Scottish Remainers will not have the opportunity to seamlessly move from being part of a United Kingdom in the European Union to an independent Scotland in the European Union. Because of the ongoing drama surrounding Theresa May, we've lost sight of what a bad night the SNP had on 8 June. Not just because they lost 21 of the 56 seats they were defending, including that of their leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson, and their former leader, Alex Salmond. They also have no truly safe seats left – having gone from the average SNP MP sitting on a majority of more than 10,000 to an average of just 2,521.

As Sturgeon conceded in her statement, there is an element of referendum fatigue in Scotland, which contributed to the loss. Does she now join the list of politicians – Tim Farron being one, and Owen Smith the other – who bet on an anti-Brexit dividend that failed to materialise?

I'm not so sure. Of all the shocks on election night, what happened to the SNP was in many ways the least surprising and most long-advertised. We knew from the 2016 Holyrood elections – before the SNP had committed to a referendum by March 2019 – that No voters were getting better at voting tactically to defeat the SNP, which was helping all the Unionist parties outperform their vote share. We saw that in the local elections earlier this year, too. We knew, too, that the biggest beneficiaries of that shift were the Scottish Conservatives.

So in many ways, what happened at the election was part of a bigger trend that Sturgeon was betting on a wave of anger at the Brexit vote. If we get a bad Brexit deal, or worse, no deal at all, then it may turn out that Sturgeon's problem was simply that this election came a little too early.

The bigger problem for the Yes side isn't what happened to the SNP's MPs – they can undo that with a strong showing at the Holyrood elections in 2021 or at Westminster in 2022. The big problem is what happened to the Labour Party across the United Kingdom.

One of Better Together's big advantages in 2014 is that, regardless of whether you voted for the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats or the Labour Party, if you believed the polls, you had a pretty reasonable expectation that your type of politics would be represented in the government of Britain sometime soon.

For the last two years, the polls, local elections and by-elections have all suggested that the only people in Scotland who could have that expectation were Conservatives. Bluntly: the day after the local elections, Labour and the Liberal Democrats looked to be decades from power, and the best way to get a centre-left government looked to be a Yes vote. The day after the general election, both parties could hope to be in government within six months.

As Tommy Sheppard, the SNP MP for Edinburgh East, observed in a smart column for the Herald after the election, one of the reasons why the SNP lost votes was that Corbyn's manifesto took some of the optimistic vote that they gobbled up in 2014 and 2015.

And while Brexit may yet sour enough to make Nicola Sturgeon's second referendum more appealing on that ground, the transformation in Labour's position over the course of the election campaign is a much bigger problem for the SNP.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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