The risks of Finland’s populist downfall

The risks of Finland’s populist downfall

In Finland, the shift from opposition naysaying to the burden of power seems to have taken its toll on the populist Finns Party. But the party’s downfall exposes potentially significant risks to political and societal stability.

In the 2015 Finnish elections, the anti-immigrant and anti-EU populist Finns Party became the second largest party, winning nearly 20% of parliament seats and entering government for the first time. To make the victory even sweeter, the Finns Party leader Timo Soini secured his desired spot as Foreign Minister.

Many voters, especially in larger cities, were upset. In a country that had enjoyed decades of relatively stable party politics, this election seemed to point to a dramatic rise in racism, xenophobia, and isolationism.

But this was also an expected victory. The Finns Party had steadily gained more ground in successive elections since 2009, growing from an unknown fringe party into a household name. Its populist rhetoric (Minister Soini wrote his thesis on populism) appeared to have struck a chord with a sizeable chunk of society.

But the tide of populism seems to be ebbing in Finland. Since the Finns Party came to power in 2015, their ratings in national polls have slumped to less than 10%. In the recent municipal elections in April, taking place less than 2 years since the parliamentary elections, the Finns Party received only 8.8% of the vote.

Despite their presence in the coalition government, the Finns Party has also had limited impact on policy. While the party has played a disruptive role in cutting support for asylum seekers and funding for development cooperation, their impact on migration and EU policy is far from dominant.

Not only is Finland one of only two countries that is on target to meet its EU-wide migrant relocation quota (Finland is set to relocate over 2000 migrants from Italy and Greece by September), it is actively taking a tougher stance on EU member states that don’t pull their weight. Furthermore, immigration reached record highs in 2016 (up 21% from 2015) and Finland also granted citizenship to a record number of people.

Moreover, the once-popular idea of a potential “Fixit” from the EU or the Eurozone has been postponed indefinitely. In fact, Finland has continuously pushed for further European cooperation on trade, environmental issues, and security since the 2015 elections.

As is the case for most populist parties, the shift from opposition naysaying to the burden of power seems to have become the Finns Party’s downfall. As their public backing wanes further, they will have even less influence in the government and will likely suffer a stinging defeat in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

But can they make it that far?

Timo Soini will step down as Finns Party chair after 20 years

Earlier this spring, Minister Soini announced that he will step down as party chair, with many pointing to weakening party popularity as the main reason. This has set the stage for a leadership election at the upcoming party congress on June 10th. The two main contenders are Sampo Terho, who currently holds the awkward title of ‘Minister for European Affairs, Culture, and Sport’, and Jussi Halla-aho, a Member of the European Parliament.

In many ways, the latter candidate is more dangerous. Halla-aho is known for his radical views on immigration and the EU, and he has openly criticized Soini’s leadership for being too soft on these issues. But while he appears to resonate with a ‘hard core’ of the Finns Party, he is strongly opposed by many others. Indeed his victory could lead to an exodus from the party or rejection by coalition partners. Either development would force the government to dissolve.

Minister Terho, on the other hand, is somewhat more moderate and may be better for political stability, but is still problematic. In an effort to assuage some of the more radical voters, Minister Terho has adopted some of his opponent’s hardline rhetoric. Not only does this risk pushing away some moderate Finns Party members and further shrinking the party’s support, it also risks escalating tensions throughout Finnish society.

Indeed, the greatest disruption of the Finns Party 2015 victory is its impact on public discourse. It has pushed race, religion, and identity firmly into the spotlight at a time when many Finns are concerned about terrorist attacks in neighboring Russia and Sweden. While the risk of widespread social unrest remains small, there have already been a number of mass protests and counter-protests surrounding the issue of multiculturalism. More worryingly, there has been a noticeable increase in hate crimes and speech.

Recent polls suggest that Halla-aho may have more stable support within the party, and as such is the frontrunner in the leadership race. However, Minister Terho is often cited as Soini’s protégé and the party elite’s favorite.

But regardless of which candidate wins, the strong rhetoric of the Finns Party leadership contest will further radicalize xenophobic actors in Finland and expand polarisation in society. At worst, this leads to increased far-right violent extremism, which in turn increases the threat of retaliatory ideological attacks.

While many are pleased to see the bad fortunes of a populist party campaigning against immigration and the EU, it’s good to remember that populism does not appear out of nowhere. The party could not have succeeded without a core group of ideological supporters, as well as wider disappointment with the status quo.

A failing populist party – especially one that is a major coalition partner such as the Finns Party – poses undeniable risks for political and societal stability. Some supporters will switch back to traditional parties, others will not. In this case, it may trigger early elections, spark violent extremism amongst opposing societal groups, or even worse – both.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Karl Sorri

Karl has gained global experience working at the Transparency International Secretariat in Berlin, the Political/Economic Section of the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, and as a freelance journalist. Karl holds an MA in Politics from the University of Glasgow and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.