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Nationalism no longer seems to be a busted flush. Enter a new era of Finnish politics where, according to the Helsingin Sanomat, Perussuomalaiset (PS), Finland’s most right-wing party, “rewrote the electoral history books” and convulsed the Finnish and European political landscapes. In what can only be described as a remarkable surge PS, led by Timo Soini, leapt from being a grouping with just five seats in the outgoing Parliament to becoming the third-largest party in the country, with 39 MPs and a 19% share of the overall vote. This means that PS should be invited to sit in the new government which is likely be formed around a central plank of the National Coalition conservatives and the Social Democratic Party, who got 20.4% and 19.1% of the votes respectively. What has taken people by surprise is not the success of the PS per se but the scale of it. How might we explain the scale of their success?
The ascendency of the PS has complex causes. Those within the party and most of its supporters see it as the simple story of progress whose time to make a bigger splash in the political pool has finally come. Also, if PS favour a unilateral definition of Finnish sovereignty, then aren’t they mistaken in assuming that their future in government will somehow be decoupled from their stance against the EU and immigration? I can hear people saying “but the Finnish people have spoken and PS were voted in fair and square”. To accept this uncritically, though, is to overlook the more general danger in self-determination along ethnic lines. "Everyone can decide for themselves whom to vote for. But if the decision is made on the basis of false information and inspired with fear, someone has to say ’Stop’”, writes the Swedish journalist Lisa Bjurwald in the Helsingin Sanomat. In societies where democracy is defined as self-determination for the ethnic majority everyday life inevitably becomes uncomfortable for the minority. Who can forget the former Yugoslavia?
Bjurwald also points out that PS are no different from any other European populist right wing party: they have a charismatic, engaging leader who is a little cartoonish at times, they speak a language that the masses can understand and claim to 'get things out in the open’ all of which has made a profound impression on a cohort of voters. Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party (BNP), Soini’s comfortable bedfellow, is as charismatic and Oxford University intelligent as they come. However, contra the 2011 Finnish Parliamentary elections, when it came down to voting in the 2010 UK General Election, the 338 candidates put forward by the BNP failed to win any seats: the total amount of votes was only 1.9% which is pale in comparison to the stellar success of PS.
And yet since the 2009 European Parliament elections PS have been riding the same swelling populist waveform which has finally given shape to Finnish public opinion. On a European level this is partly explained by record levels of public concern over immigration, anxiety over already settled Muslim communities, dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and the effects of economic recession, which have all created opportunities for a movement that has long been associated with failure and fascism. Another reason why smaller parties have gained more political ground is because they now share similar views with the bigger parties on issues such as multiculturalism and immigration. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's National Front, recently praised the British Prime Minister David Cameron for apparently endorsing her party's far-right views on multiculturalism and immigration. In his speech at the Munich Security Conference, in February 2011, Cameron called for a new "muscular liberalism", promoting British values and national identity. He went on to say that a policy of "passive tolerance" had only served to encourage Islamist extremism. This left Le Pen in no doubt that Cameron was moving the Conservatives closer to the traditional positions held by her party.
There is something more specific about Finland that helps to explain the scale of the recent success of populism: the relatively less advanced state of immigration as both a debate and a phenomenon when compared with countries like Britain, France, Germany and even neighbouring Sweden. The BNP tried to hijack and poison the immigration debate in the 2010 General Election but they failed miserably because immigrants have been part of British society for hundreds of years and their benefits, including positive economic impacts, are evident Despite this, when Nick Griffin was asked if saw any positive aspects of immigration, in Laura Fairrie’s “Battle for Barking” documentary, all he could say was that it meant a better range of ethnic restaurants. In Finland, by contrast, immigration has a much shorter history. The trickles of immigrants who live in Finland make easy targets for populists because they haven’t had the time to more fully demonstrate how they are a real benefit to society. This has handed the True Finns loaded guns to shoot down social immigrants while appearing to be more welcoming to immigrants who arrive in Finland to work and pay taxes. This crude distinction is used to gloss over what is, in essence, a highly selective immigration policy.
Another factor that explains the recent surge of the PS is their stance on the EU, most specifically in relation to bailouts. Soini doesn’t see why Finland should be made to bail out the economies of its troubled southern neighbours like Greece, Ireland and Portugal. It is worth noting that no one bailed out Finland when it sunk into a severe recession in the early 1990s. What followed was a painful decade of tax hikes and severe cuts to social welfare programs and other frontline public services. The banking system was overhauled and fiscal policies were reformed. It seems that these hard times are still fresh in people's memories. But this doesn’t help the EU, which not only needs the borrowing power of Finland’s triple A credit rating but also euro zone unanimity to pass any crisis measures.
In the event that PS is included in the new government – which is probable - the main challenge for this post-election period, from the other parties’ points of view, will be how to squeeze them into the pro-European bail out camp. Tarja Halonen, the Finnish President, is quite confident that the parties that are to form the new government will be able to agree on a common programme. Speaking to Helsingin Sanomat she said that, “with Finnish pragmatism, they will come up with a reasonable result.” If this is true then it seems certain that efforts will be made to allocate PS representatives to low level positions in the new Parliament where they their impacts and fear mongering can be minimized. However, the Finnish people have now been reminded how easily their own language can be turned against them.
Until PS is are singing from the hymn sheet as the other main Finnish and European parties it may well fall to civic activism to sap those who support narrow definitions of nationalism. There is already evidence of this on Facebook where ad hoc groups like “Perus Ulkomaalainen” (True Foreigners), “EI perussuomalaiselle Suomelle” (No to a True Finns’ Finland) and “Minun Suomeni on kansainvälinen” (My Finland Is International) picking up new members by the minute. The existence of these groups and people who think like them points to many issues that cause dissatisfaction in Finnish society. The longer term concern is that immigration and the benefits it brings may become subordinate to Finnish sovereignty. But as long as people are able to make a difference through voting, the current surge of PS may prove to have been an anti-immigrant, right-wing populist flash in the pro-European pan come the next Parliamentary elections.
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