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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.