When Sanna Marin became the prime minister of Finland at the end of 2019, the international media went wild. A thirty-four-year-old woman, Marin now heads a coalition government whose four other parties also have women leaders, three of them in their thirties. The fact of so many young women at the top level of Finnish politics has been roundly celebrated; it’s been splashed across newspaper spreads, turned into inspirational memes, and touted as a rare sign of progress in an increasingly hostile, far-right, nationalist world.
Obscured by this celebration of women in government are the darker dynamics lurking in the background of contemporary Finnish politics. While the broad coalition government struggles for any meaningful consensus across left-wing and center-right positions, the extreme far-right is gathering steam, taking every opportunity to make life difficult for Marin’s fragile coalition.
An Uncertain Coalition
Finland went to the polls in April last year. The incumbent government’s punitive austerity policies were widely disliked, and most opposition parties campaigned on reversing some or all of them. On election day, however, no party received more than 20 percent of the vote. Out of that far-from-ringing endorsement of the options, the current coalition was formed. It includes the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the Center Party, the Green League, the Left Alliance, and the Swedish People’s Party.
Of all these coalition partners, it is the Center Party that is the most disconcerting. It was the lead partner in the previous right-wing government coalition — the very party whose destructive neoliberal policies the others had just spent the election campaigning against. The return of a hated establishment party into the coalition — after most parties promised to fight it — hardly bodes well for the current government.
The backdrop for this coalition is the far-right Finns Party, whose support is skyrocketing. If the current coalition falls apart before the next parliamentary elections, they’re first in line for the throne. They’re a key reason why ostensibly left and center-left parties are currently holding their nose in coalition with the worst of the bourgeois worst.
Formed out of the ashes of the Finnish Rural Party in 1995, and once self-described as “a working-class party without socialism,” the Finns Party has capitalized on the neoliberal shifts in Finland that — like elsewhere — have left a large chunk of the population feeling decidedly excluded from the good times. Declining rural populations, unemployment, and lack of opportunities have provided ripe territory for the far-right Finns to stir up anger at inner-city elites and the job-stealing immigrants they supposedly encourage.
It hasn’t been a simple climb to popularity and potential power. The Finns were part of the previous right-wing coalition government alongside the Center Party and the National Coalition Party. Together they implemented destructive policies designed to undermine Finland’s relatively robust welfare system. But that particular marriage of convenience collapsed when the head of the Finns’ extreme anti-immigration faction, Jussi Halla-aho, was elected party leader in 2017.
The party split in two. The half chasing respectability and hard power stayed with the major parties in government and were booted from the organization. Halla-aho’s wilder half regrouped in opposition.
The split was a godsend for Halla-aho. The party — now even more openly and rabidly anti-immigrant — could retain and build up the outsider status that had led them into the halls of power, but blame all the harmful economic policies they’d implemented while there on the turncoats who stayed in government. They hitched their political cart to a sex abuse scandal in Oulu involving immigrants and dragged the pre-election discussion further to the right. It was a winning strategy: the Finns came second in last year’s elections, and their former party comrades were politically wiped out.
Halla-aho has proven himself a master of racist dog-whistling. His smirking denial of any wrongdoing works in tandem with the racist theatrics of his party MPs. It is a sinister approach that is dangerously appealing to certain parts of the population. He’s got the smug, educated style of a Nordic Steve Bannon — only one bold enough to seize power for himself.
In June the Finns Party MP Juha Mäenpää sarcastically declared in Parliament that in official documents the government had misidentified “foreign invasive species” as plants and animals rather than immigrants. The Prosecutor General submitted a request to charge Mäenpää with “ethnic agitation.” When the Chief Police Inspector published a tweet explaining freedom of speech legislation in Finland, another Finns Party MP, Ano Turtiainen, hit back, calling the Inspector “a dickless whinger.”
It wasn’t Turtiainen’s first rodeo. In 2015 he labelled the Finnish Red Cross, who were planning to run reception centers for asylum seekers, the “greatest enemy of the people,” and called for their “elimination.” Astoundingly, his supporters obliged, and a series of arson attacks against Red Cross facilities ensued across Finland. Turtiainen was charged for inciting the crimes. He initially appealed his conviction, but then theatrically dropped it, declaring that for his party supporters the conviction was “a feather in his cap.”
Halla-aho, himself previously convicted for blog posts targeting Muslims, used the stir around Mäenpää and Turtiainen to launch the party’s new cultural program, calling for an end to the “ethnic agitation” section of the Criminal Code once and for all.
“We don’t want to be the taste police,” he told the media. “Voters will decide in the next election what they think of Mäenpää’s turn of phrase. Instead, we want to ensure that political debate takes place in the Parliament, and not in the courts.”
For all their promotion of free debate, the Finns have an army of supporters and trolls they rely on to silence criticism. Journalist Rebekka Härkönen faced their wrath when she reported on an asylum seeker who tried to help victims of a stabbing attack in Turku. Halla-aho tweeted an article from MV-Lehti (a far-right online news outlet with historical ties to the Finns Party) accusing her of lying. All hell broke loose and Häkönen fled Turku for her life.
A student activist who criticised MV-Lehti later had her face photoshopped onto pornographic images. Halla-aho himself publicly goaded a different journalist who lost her attempt to get a restraining order against her far-right harassers. A recent intimidation tactic sees trolls filing reports against anti-racism activists, falsely accusing them of family abuse to scare them into silence.
The Finns’ links to neo-Nazi groups have hovered at the edge of deniability for years, but are now something of an open secret. The party’s official postal address in Ruovesi had Nazi flags hanging in the window, and party MPs have been attending neo-Nazi demonstrations in Helsinki, which have been growing in recent years. When shown photo evidence of these links the party leadership engages in a gleeful denial so bald-faced it would put Trump to shame.
Alongside the arson, thuggery, harassment, and intimidation there is the party’s attempt to position itself as a serious alternative for the so-called “forgotten people” and poach voters from the other parties. They have a sluggish but persistent entryist strategy in the trade unions, headed by a former union official. One of their MPs, Lulu Ranne, was just elected chairman of the Nordic Council’s Working Group on Borders.
Though the next general election in Finland will not take place until 2023, currents polls show the Finns Party have jumped to a commanding first place. At present, they have thirty-nine members of Parliament — enough to block any potential criminal prosecution for ethnic agitation. And they have — perhaps most crucially in the lead up to the 2021 municipal elections — almost 800 municipal councillors who can lend an ear to local grievances.
Halla-aho may not have won government in 2019, but the current international interest in the young women who did perfectly fits his identity politics narrative of ordinary people versus out-of-touch elites. In February this year he commented that the media focus on young, educated, female politicians and voters “simply overlooks the fact that we have other populations and everyone’s experiences are, in a way, just as legitimate.”
The current coalition’s international lauding is in some ways woeful timing domestically. Hundreds of thousands of municipal workers’ collective labor agreements are about to expire at the end of March. The nurses’ union, Tehy, has directly appealed to the prime minister to intervene to raise wages in the female-dominated industry. But with the conservative Center Party controlling the Finance Ministry, Sanna Marin has said that her hands are largely tied.
If labor disputes are not resolved in the interests of working people, the Finns Party will get to have their cake and eat it too — both getting to decry “inner-city elitist feminism” and accusing the government of not supporting working-class Finnish women.
The Finns Party’s rise has not come without pushback. Thousands have attended anti-fascist demonstrations in recent years in response to the growing threat, and polls indicate that left parties are also gaining support.
In a February debate on the national broadcaster, Halla-aho directly accused the government coalition of conspiring to render parts of regional Finland uninhabitable through its climate policies. “That’s quite frankly bullshit,” the Left Alliance’s Li Andersson retorted, challenging him to provide one example and outlining the income inequality reduction measures explicit in the climate policy. A shocked Halla-aho, more used to dishing out insults than receiving them, was reduced to awkward stammering.
Of course, it is much easier for the Finns to try to be everything to everyone while in opposition. Should they find themselves again in office, the party would face the same dilemmas that they faced last time. But for now, they seem to have successfully dominated the political discussion in Finland. And it will take a reinvigorated class politics at home — beyond the online international meme economy — to change all that.