04.08.2017
  • Finland

True Finns, False Hopes

The Finns rose to become one of Europe’s most prominent right-populist parties. Then they joined government.

Timo Soini in 2016. EU2016 SK / Flickr

On March 5, 2017, an era came to an end in Finland.

For twenty years, Timo Soini had led the Finns Party, previously known as the True Finns, a party he had built from the ground up. Under his stewardship the party rose from the fringes to almost 20 percent in the polls, garnering international renown as an early example of European success for right-wing populism. He had even managed to bring the Finns into government in 2015 — but less than two years on from that achievement he was stepping down.

The move ended months of speculation that Soini might be ousted by the anti-immigration movement he had fostered, one that had grown restless under the constraints of government. Having promised to cut immigration and bolster the welfare state, the Finns’ social media outlets are now mobbed by former supporters castigating the party for introducing budget and wage cuts and failing to prevent thirty thousand asylum seekers reaching Finland in 2015.

Accordingly, the party’s fortunes have diminished in the polls — down from 17.7 percent at the last elections to 8-10 percent.

But the Finns remain an interesting example of a right-wing populist party — one that is both nationalist and conservative — which grew to a point of social relevance and entered the government. Much like the American “alt-right,” it utilized online organizing and social media to build its base. But its origins are quite specific to Finland.

Kekkoslovakia

In 1944, Finland’s participation in World War II, when it fought the Soviet Union alongside the Axis powers, ended in defeat. The newly legalized Communist Party became a considerable force in parliament through an umbrella organization, the Finnish People’s Democratic League.

The war reparations and the decision not to accept Marshall Aid due to the policy of neutrality required heavy state intervention to rebuild the economy. This was accompanied by working-class militancy, culminating in the general strike of 1956. All of this created perfect conditions for a new generation of politicians to take the reins, abandon prewar laissez-faire doctrines, and begin a comprehensive project of development, including the public services we currently call the welfare state.

The stage had been set for the emergence of Finland’s most prominent Cold War president, Urho Kekkonen, who governed for twenty-five years. Kekkonen, from the agrarian Centre Party, began his political career in the far right before eventually coming around to supporting peace with Soviet Union. Kekkonen’s strategy for dealing with the Communists was dubbed “hugging them to death,” and included proposing their reinclusion in the government in 1966.

All of this led to a model of development where state-oriented capitalism was connected to neutrality and good relations with the Soviet Union. Despite some liberalization, Finland remained a largely monocultural nation. This era has sometimes been referred to as “Kekkoslovakia.” Many people still nostalgize this period as an essential time of building the Finnish welfare state and securing peace, but detractors see it as a backwards political consensus, hypersensitive to Russian opinion and insufficiently liberal.

After Communists had joined the government, the main challenger to this consensus was Veikko Vennamo, the founder of the Rural Party of Finland, the predecessor of the Finns. The Rural Party appealed to the small farmers, who felt betrayed by Finland’s industrialization and Kekkonen’s friendliness with the Soviet Union. Soon, many were attracted by Vennamo’s anti-establishment populism.

Vennamo enjoyed rapid success in the late sixties — but this was cut short by Kekkonen, who manufactured a constitutional crisis over his presidency. The Rural Party tore itself apart over the issue, but rose again in the mid-1980s under Veikko’s son Pekka Vennamo. Unlike his father, Pekka led the party to a government, where it remained for eight years. But the party’s promises of helping the poor and guaranteeing full employment were quickly revealed to be a mirage. When the party collapsed a second time, it was permanent.

The Nokia Nation

It was left to the party’s last secretary, Timo Soini, to build the Finns on the Rural Party’s ruins. In its early years it struggled for relevance. Due to the collapse of Soviet Union — and with it Finland’s eastern trade — the country experienced a harsh recession in the early 1990s. As the economy began to improve, a turn of events most Finns associated with joining the European Union, the nation was largely disinterested in a relic of Cold War–era populism.

In fact, rejection of the Cold War had become a touchstone of Finnish liberalism. Turning away from the legacy of “Kekkoslovakia,” the Finnish establishment proposed policies of economic liberalization, globalization, and “Europeanism.” To them, the old society based on regional industries and Eastern trade was obsolete; instead the field that would save the Finnish welfare state was the online economy: electronics and the IT sector.

Under the hegemony of this politics the debate around immigration was no longer focused on issues such as the human rights of asylum seekers. Instead, the focus was on Finnish society, particularly its perceived lack of cosmopolitanism, which was a source of embarrassment, seen as backward and “non-European.” This framing of migration as an issue of elite cultural cosmopolitanism provided fertile ground for the radical right.

The “Nokia nation” political consensus began to crack in the mid-2000s, as an electoral scandal shook confidence in the country’s supposedly low level of corruption, and the euro crisis rose in prominence. The main point of discontent, stoked by the media, was the Greek loan crisis, which was turned into a morality play about Greek negligence and northern European frugality. This played into the populist anti-EU message, and the support of the Finns began to skyrocket.

The Finns on the Rise

Few feats in Finnish politics rival Soini bringing his party’s support from 4.1 percent in the 2007 elections to 19.1 percent in the 2011 elections. The most important factor in this rise was Soini’s constant critique of the bailouts to Greece and Portugal, which Finland had joined under the Centre Party’s “blue-green” liberal goverment. Few Finns shared the pro-European enthusiasm expressed by then-finance minister Jyrki Katainen when he claimed the country would “make money on [the bailouts].” Instead, Soini proposed cutting the southern European countries loose — avoiding challenging Finnish Euro membership itself, which still remained popular.

The Finns also utilized other themes. The anti-immigration faction focused its attacks on Astrid Thors, the minister in charge of immigration, whose aloof demeanor and Finnish-Swedish roots added more fuel to the fire. A considerable topic of discontent in the countryside was the Waste Waters Act, which mandated expensive systems for getting rid of human waste even for small cottages. The Centre Party’s rural supporters saw it as a prime example of the party’s detachment from its roots.

However, rural people and immigration opponents were not the only source of support for the Finns. Under Soini, the Finns framed themselves as a “workers’ party without socialism,” consciously appealing to former left-wing voters attached to the welfare state but uneasy with new left causes such as environmentalism, which was often perceived as a threat to jobs. Further evidencing their class identity politics, Soini would often describe himself as a “lad with a Master’s degree.” The aim of this strategy was to build an idea of class membership that was more about meat-eating, car-driving, and traditional gender roles than the contradiction between labor and capital.

One of the centerpieces of Soini’s strategy was his blog, Ploki, where he utilized an eclectic writing style of short sentences, unfamiliar words from different Finnish dialects, and fulsome praise for the party’s salt-of-the-earth supporters. In general, the communications of the Finns revel in being plainspoken, utilizing simplistic slogans and often preferring basic election materials to flashy graphics.

The Finns have excelled in using their opponents’ contempt as part of their own project. A good example was the case of a webpage called Per-Looks — a parody of the well-known hipster outfit site Hel-Looks — which featured a cavalcade of unusual-looking Finns candidates. Soini and others seized on this, condemning it as an elitist attack against ordinary people. The media often fell into the party’s trap too, much as it did with Trump in the United States, unable to help itself reporting Soini’s carefully cultivated quips or the various outrageous acts and statements of other party members.

The immediate response of the mainstream parties to the growth of the Finns was an attempt to draw them into political coalition, as they had done with the Communists and Rural Party before. By 2011 the National Coalition and Social Democrats were contemplating inviting the Finns to join a newly formed government. The effort failed due to differences on European policy and an unwieldy six-party government (the “sixpack”) was formed instead, containing nearly all the parties apart from the Finns and the Centre, which opted out due to its electoral losses.

While the sixpack had ambitious plans for reforms, it spent much of its time infighting, particularly after the Left Alliance (the successor party of the People’s Democratic League) and the Greens left the government due to austerity and nuclear power respectively. These parties were also a particular target of attack for Soini — first branding them “thistle parties,” sticking to the government at all costs, then blaming them for instability when they left. Other Finns politicians would also increasingly target the “red-green agenda.”

The Finns largely repeated their campaign and performance in the 2015 election. While their support went down a fraction, to 17.7 percent, this was considered small victory, considering the difficulty Soini had in managing the party’s parliamentary group. The big winner of the election, however, was the Centre, under its new leader, millionaire businessman Juha Sipilä.

The Finns in Government

Prime Minister Sipilä formed a right-wing government with the Finns and the National Coalition. This government, in which Soini has been the foreign minister, imposed biting austerity. It enacted a number of reforms aimed at deregulation, outsourcing of services, and means-testing of benefits. At the same time, it pushed the unions into a new wage-slashing “social contract” through various threats.

Many of these policies have proven unpopular, and it is clear the Finns have taken the brunt of these criticisms. Their supporters had previously reveled in Soini’s attacks on the other parties betraying their promises in the government; now, they felt similarly betrayed.

The biggest single drop in the polls was connected to a thirty-thousand-strong demonstration called by Finnish unions against the “social contract.” The Finns had selected Jari Lindström, a former paper mill worker whose struggles with unemployment had symbolized the slow death of Finnish paper industry in the 2000s, as the labor minister; now, Lindström visibly struggled implementing policies that went directly against the labor movement he had once identified with.

Even Soini’s appeals to the class stereotype of meat-eaters and car-drivers have been found wanting. When the transport minister Anne Berner from the Centre proposed a vast scheme of toll roads and car tracking, it was her own party that stopped it. Even Soini’s adviser Matti Putkonen, a former trade-union official who spearheaded the Finns’ appeal to workers, has descended into a quixotic quest to prove that wind power makes bats explode, rather than outlining the anti-environmentalist, “pro-labor” policy he was hired to articulate.

Soini himself faced criticism for taking the Foreign Ministry instead of the weightier Finance Ministry. This enabled him to escape responsibility for some of the hardest decisions of the government, allowing him instead to sojourn abroad, often with hardline right-wing friends in Great Britain or the United States. However, it has also made it appear as if there are two Soinis – one of the Finnish establishment, the other ranting against it on his blog.

Apart from the difficulties of government, the Finns are also plagued by problems caused by their rapid ascent. Their local sections consist of a rag-tag team of former Rural Party stalwarts, various one-issue standard-bearers (from local-issue NIMBYs to bilingualism opponents and religious conservatives), and people who have left parties such as the Social Democrats, Centre, and National Coalition.

This has created many fractures, both ideological and personal, and in many cities the local sections have splintered. In some cases politicians elected on the Finns’ lists have returned to their old parties. According to the polls, they have been followed by approximately half of all Finns supporters.

Alt-Finland

One of the politicians looking to take advantage of Soini’s struggles is Jussi Halla-aho, the informal leader of the party’s anti-immigration wing. Whereas Soini tends to see immigration as only one issue of many that the party has to grapple with, Halla-aho has foregrounded it throughout his career, utilizing increasingly hardline anti-immigrant rhetoric. He has openly challenged the party’s record in government and stated that if he’s elected leader he’ll demand the government change its program to be more stridently anti-immigration.

Halla-aho started his political life in an organization called Suomen Sisu, which connects various sections of the Finnish far right. He and a group of more “presentable” Suomen Sisu members became candidates for the Finns in the 2007 elections, failing to gain election but obtaining a strong vote. He then ran for Helsinki city council in 2008 and was elected. This established him permanently in the mainstream media. Online, however, he was already a figure of renown.

Even more than Soini, Halla-aho has based his political career around the internet and his blog. An important factor has been the base of supporters that gathered on his blog’s guestbook and later the anti-immigration Hommaforum. During its life, this subculture has created own peculiar lore, memes, and linguistic quirks, resembling the American movement now known as the alt-right.

Like the alt-right, the movement tends to “ironically” utilize Nazi rhetoric — lines from a documentary about a Finnish neo-Nazi movement contributed Jussi Halla-aho’s ubiquituous nickname, “the Master,” and Hommaforum’s (hard-to-translate) name. The movement relishes directly attacking its opponents online, Halla-aho once infamously directing his followers to “spam and destroy” a tabloid newspaper’s comment section. And there’s a taste for ironic self-deprecation based on liberal statements, as well; where the alt-right has its “deplorables,” Hommaforum users dubbed themselves “nuivat” (“indifferents”) and “netsit” (“Net-zis”).

Before figures like Jared Taylor or Fred Reed had become influences on the alt-right, they had influenced Halla-aho, who listed their articles on an early version of his blog. Similar to alt-right controversialists such as Milo Yiannopoulous, his main target has not been immigrants themselves but the Left and liberals — the so-called “tolerants.” Many of Halla-aho’s supporters claim that they themselves once were “tolerant” until their eyes were opened to the anti-immigration message; a trope similar to the “redpill” narrative utilized by the alt-right.

Unlike Soini’s blog, Halla-aho’s features a more middlebrow style. He weaponizes sarcasm and dry humor, and, like many other Finns politicians, often intentionally courts controversy. A prominent example of this came when he successfully baited a public prosecutor to prosecute him for breaking Finland’s law against “breach of religious peace” by insulting the prophet Mohammed.

Halla-aho was easily elected to the parliament in 2011. While many speculated that his academic profile might be a barrier to attaining working-class votes in eastern Helsinki, it turned out that this base of nationalist voters appreciated having their anti-immigration views given a quasi-intellectual veneer. He then ran for the European Parliament in 2014, replacing Soini — the man he now aims to succeed as party leader.

The Farther Right

But the field he aims to hegemonize is more diffuse today: grassroots anger at the Finns’ performance in government has created room for new far-right groups such as Soldiers of Odin, Rajat Kiinni (Close the Borders), and Suomi Ensin (Finland First). These groups have proved unstable and prone to infighting.

One unifying factor is the online magazine MV-Lehti. Originally called Mitä Vittua? -Lehti (literally “What the Fuck? Magazine”), it churns out constant reports of immigrant crimes as well as attacks on liberal and left-wing journalists and politicians. It often prints statements by the Finnish Resistance Movement, a militant, openly-neo-Nazi movement.

When Halla-aho is not opposing immigration — or gun control, another link with the American hard right — his supporters are divided about his free-market views and support for joining NATO. The Russia question is emerging as a major line of division among the radical right, with conservative, nationalist Russia often counterposed to the liberal West. This is particularly the case with MV-Lehti and its editor Ilja Janitskin, who had once praised Halla-aho, but has since grown more skeptical. They share the pro-Russian position of many other far-right movements in Europe and are critical of the “Atlanticism” of Soini and other prominent Finns politicians.

The relationship between the new far-right movements and the Finns is complex. The party attempts to keep it at arms length, but some of its politicians, such as Teuvo Hakkarainen and another MP, Laura Huhtasaari (both of whom who are running for deputy party leadership), have praised MV-Lehti and supported hardline street movements. A number of Finns politicians have also challenged the party’s support for sanctions against Russia.

The departing Finns leader Soini aims to counteract these trends with a plan for his succession, one that would anchor the party in the traditional right of Finnish politics. His preferred leader is the party’s parliamentary group leader Sampo Terho, a former National Coalition member. He largely shares Halla-aho’s views on immigration, the economy, and NATO, but in a far less combative way. While Halla-aho would return the party to its populist, anti-establishment roots, Terho’s plans might see it eventually develop into a folksy version of the British Conservative Party.

Wither the Finnish Left?

The Left has found it difficult to answer the challenge posed by the Finns’ anti-establishment politics. While left-wing parties have improved their polling from the low point of 2015, this has less to do with their own strength than with the government’s headlong rush into austerity.

In recent years, the Finnish Greens have shifted their discourse leftwards in an attempt to become the hegemonic party of the opposition. But despite their occasional awkward flirtations with Finnish patriotism, their left-liberal profile generally does not appeal to Finns supporters. The task is left to the traditional left-wing parties — the Social Democrats and the Left Alliance.

These parties are struggling with their own contradictions. The Social Democrats are caught between a traditional working-class base and more cosmopolitan professional voters who pin them to neoliberal policies. The Left Alliance, despite rebounding somewhat under its charismatic new leader Li Andersson, has not resolved the question of how radical it should be, and has already been stung by its participation in the sixpack government.

Neither party stands much chance of growth while they remain confined by the two modes of thought that dominated postwar Finland — “Kekkoslovakia,” with its nostalgia for social conservatism, state capitalism, and Eastern trade, and “Nokia nation,” with its technology-oriented cosmopolitan liberalism. The Left’s task is to find a way to break from this dichotomy and develop a socialist alternative which could claim popular appeal. In this they will need to chart a new course in all areas of policy from the economy and immigration to the European Union and Russian relations.

In the meantime, despite the present difficulties facing the Finns, immigration looms as large as ever in political conversation. It requires constant response, from counteracting the far right online and on the streets to solidarity with refugees.

But the fact is anti-immigration rhetoric remains popular for the True Finns, and much of their difficulties stem from the fact their own base sees them as having been too weak on the question. This leaves open a dangerous field — one that might be populated by Halla-aho or someone farther to the right.

The urgency of developing a left-wing politics that can resonate more forcefully with disillusioned working-class communities is as clear in Finland as it is across much of Europe. But here, at least, we can see signs that right-wing populism’s dalliance with electoral politics is not an easy path to power.