The Finns party (formerly known as the True Finns) have, until now, stood out from the pack of parties labelled ‘right wing populists’ for two reasons: first, they have made it into government, sitting in Finland’s cabinet and secondly, theirs is a distinctive ideology that can legitimately trace its roots back to a very Scandinavian form of rural populism. But the election of a new party leader has changed both.
Anti-immigration and anti-Islam hardliner Jussi Halla-aho was elected leader earlier this month by a landslide, capturing two thirds of the party ballot. So hardline is the MEP that he has been previously convicted of hate speech by Finland’s supreme court.
His election has thrown both his party, and his country’s centre-right government into chaos and confusion.
Immediately after Halla-aho’s election and hasty government talks, Prime Minister Juha Sipilä of the Centre party and Finance Minister Petteri Orpo of the centre-right National Coalition party (NCP) announced that with the much more controversial figure at the helm of the Finns they could no longer continue in government coalition with the nationalist party. The Centre party and the NCP hoped that they could form a new government with the support of the Christian Democrats and the Swedish People’s party in Finland but no longer were they prepared to work with the populists, forcing them out of office
On 13 June it was announced that Prime Minister Sipilä was on his way to hand over his resignation to the president of the republic, a necessary precursor to forming a new administration shorn of the Finns party. But then events took a radical turn. 20 members of the Finns parliamentary group (including former longtime party leader and serving foreign minister and deputy prime minister Timo Soini, whose standing down caused the leadership vacancy) announced they were breaking away to form a new parliamentary group – ‘New Alternative’ – which would support the government. In the end Sipilä’s government was able to carry on with the support of the new splinter group, and ministers were even able to keep their old positions.
The election of Halla-aho made the internal divisions within Finns visible, but tensions between the rural socialist populist wing and the xenophobic strand within the party had been growing for years. Timo Soini, leader for two decades and known for his folksy populist rhetoric, understood that he needed votes from the far right in order to win elections but, at the same time, he wanted to keep the hardliners out of key positions in order to be able to govern. This month signified the end of Soini’s opportunistic strategy, as the whole leadership of the Finns was captured by the far-right forces that Soini had initially let in, but thought he could contain.
The Finns under Soini was always a party strongly influenced by the tradition of Finnish rural populism, which is marked by its distrust of the economic, political and cultural elites in Helsinki and Brussels. Veikko Vennamo, the leader of the populist Finnish Rural party in the 1960s and 1970s, was a political role model for Soini. Halla-aho’s leadership of the party means a clear split with this rural populist tradition. In the future, the True Finns will likely become much more like other European far-right parties such as France’s National Front or the Sweden Democrats.
It is too early to say whether Halla-aho will be able to regain the support the True Finns have lost since going into government in 2015 (they are polling somewhere between 6-10% currently), or if the new splinter group that now call themselves ‘Blue Future’ will establish themselves in the Finnish political system. Initial polls have them at just a few per cent, but just this week two more Finns party MPs have defected, one to the new group and one to the NCP.
It is, however, clear that progressive and liberal forces in Finnish politics will have to deal with a new kind of Finns party that has made a clear break with its rural populist roots, and that will base its politics on opposing Islam and multiculturalism.