What really happened in the Finnish elections

Taneli Heikka, a non-partisan Finnish commentator and media consultant, looks at what really happenend in the elections to Finland's parliament on Sunday.

Taneli Heikka is a non-partisan Finnish commentator and media consultant who treats all the Finnish parties with a certain degree of scepticism; he is a co-author of the 2009 book Lumedemokratia (Quasi-Democracy), (pdf) and the former Head of Political News at Alma Media

The landslide victory of the nationalist-populist True Finns in the Finnish Parliamentary elections on Sunday have led to a need to explain Finnish politics to an international audience. I’ve given a few interviews in the last few weeks and days for the international press to try to explain things. I provide an alternative view to most analysts. I’m not a political analyst in the academic sense, but a journalist, author, entrepreneur, media commentator and public speaker.

The most interesting and important things in this election took place in two of my speciality areas – the Finnish culture of consensus, and the social media, which was a base where the anti-immigrant wing of True Finns set their agenda and eventually changed how Finland speaks of immigration.

My co-author Katja Boxberg and I started the debate on the shortcomings of Finnish consensus in February 2009 with our book Lumedemokratia. An edited version in English, by the name Quasi-Democracy, can be found here. We predicted that the stagnant and authoritarian nature of Finnish politics, where dissent and open debate was shunned and decisions made behind closed doors, could lead into an explosion of a protest movement reminiscent to the far-left surge in the 1970s.

The whole idea of seeing consensus in a critical light was news to Finns. We were criticised harshly. Politicians thought we were out of our minds, but simultaneously it struck a chord. Slowly, people started to realise that there perhaps was a point. We’re now into our sixth edition and the title of our book has become a word in everyday parlance.

We were right, but we did not have an idea what forms the protest would take. That it would be a nationalist populist movement, with strong anti-EU and anti-immigration rhetoric, seems now self-evident. That has been the road in many other European states as well. Where Finland differs, however, is that True Finns may be heading for government. This is due to a persistent culture of consensus. Finns are not used to the idea that a party, if it gains a lot of votes, could be excluded from government.

Even outright political differences do not stop a winning party joining the government.

Finland has always had exceptionally broad coalitions, with for example hard-line Stalinists and the conservative National Coalition Party in the same government in the late 1990s, something of which people are proud. They think it is the secret for the “success” of Finland.

Finns are used to seeing political ideologies as something practical and rhetorical, tools that can be changed or abandoned after the election. This skill was refined during the Cold War, when politics was a game of survival and (self)deception with the Soviets. This culture has proved resilient. Political ideologies are traditionally not outspoken before elections and they are watered down after elections. So Finns find it normal that the True Finns now consider joining a coalition government with a party whose ideology is furthest from its own.

Finland is now at a crossroads. If consensus prevails, we will have a majority coalition government with the National Coalition Party, True Finns and Social Democrats. Political differences are watered down, and the electorate will be betrayed. They have protested against consensus, but little will change.

It is a part of the Finnish system that the extremists are taken into power to neuter them. This is how the system dealt with the Stalinists over the decades. However, this will not leave the system intact, either. It normalises extremism and rots the mores of the system from inside.

The European union will still have a new kind of partner in Finland. The victory of the anti-EU camp was so vocal that it cannot be totally ignored.

In this consensus-as-usual future, the anti-immigration wing of the True Finns will get nervous. True Finns chair Timo Soini has said he is happy with the current state of affairs with immigration policy, but seven out of 39 MPs have signed a staunch anti-immigration manifesto, and they want more. A government with True Finns will have to go for tougher measures on immigration, or the party (and the government) faces collapse. Mr Soini knows this. He has even forced his candidates to sign a promise they will not leave the party after being elected.

Does NCP chairman Jyrki Katainen – who as the leader of the biggest party will most probably be prime minister – have alternatives to this bleak vision? I fear he does not see the other road. A minority government, with the extremists out, has not even been mentioned as an option in Finnish debate.

Correction: There were actually six, not seven signatories of the anti-immigration manifesto that were elected to Parliament. In addition, one elected MP was on a seperate recommendation list of the leader of the anti-immigration wing of True Finns, Jussi Halla-Aho. Finnish readers can find the list here and the manifesto with its’ signatories here (also in Swedish).

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