Written by: Matias Salo/ Edited by: Jake Dickson
A Delicate Balance
Populist and nationalist parties must always consider and balance two key considerations when engaging in public discourse. The first is defining their version of nationalism and how exclusionary or narrow this definition should be. The other is how far it is acceptable to go with demagoguing those who the party views as enemies and still be allowed by others to join in possible future governments. To lean too heavily on either side of this balance risks losing the movement’s core supporters to alienation or any hope for a stint in a coalition government. A fascinating case study of these considerations is The Finns Party, which has been one of the most successful populist movements in Europe since the Financial Crisis.
Unlike many of its sister parties, such as the Sweden Democrats or the National Rally, the Finns Party has not just achieved electoral success but also a 4-year term as a junior member in a coalition government between 2015-2019. The party is currently enjoying a sustained lead in national polling ahead of the upcoming municipal elections. Despite all this recent success, a closer look at the party’s political fortunes reveals a constant struggle between defining an ever more radically narrow Finnish identity and a desire for acceptance as a serious potential political partner by the other parties.
The party itself is quite young and has a relatively unique background compared to its continental sisters. To understand nationalist politics in Finland, one must consider that until 1991 the Soviet Union made it known that it did not want to see parties on the right of the political spectrum to gain influence. This included even the barring of the traditional center-right party from any coalition government. Nationalist political movements were purposefully side-lined and marginalised. Therefore, Finland lacked any well-known or developed nationalist movements that could challenge parliamentary seats in the post-war era.
But what Finland did have was a history of agrarian left-leaning populist parties, particularly the “Finnish Rural Party,” which employed the tried and tested formula of anti-establishment politics. It claimed to fight for the plucky and proud small-scale farmers, whom they claimed were oppressed by the urban elites. This imagery has long and rich roots in Finnish nationalism. These types of romantic nationalist tropes were used to personify Finnish identity when the country was trying to cast off the Tsars’ rule in the late 1800s.
By the 1990s, the Finnish Rural Party had gone bankrupt, and in its stead was established The Finns Party. Now that the restrictions imposed by the Soviet Union were gone, the new party under the leadership of Timo Soini could start to become more overtly and forcefully nationalistic. Still, it wanted to maintain this ideological core of being for the downtrodden rural folk and representing the true Finnish identity; in fact, the party’s Finnish name, when translated, means “The Ordinary Finn.” While the core ideas remained the same, the discourse changed to reflect the times. The small farmer transformed into an industrial worker fighting against the elite in Helsinki and Brussels.
But in the early 2000s, Timo Soini had a problem. Not very many people were willing to vote for his vision of nationalist populism. The party languished in the polls with a steady 5% support on average. Although the party did not initially gain much public support, it did gain a new ideological wing within it. These were members of online forums and chat groups who held much more overtly racist and identarian views regarding who is a true Finn. Nascent social media in the early 2000s allowed these new members to connect with like-minded nationalists and far-right activists across Europe. They could then introduce many of their ideas to Finnish political discourse.
From the early years of the Finns, tension existed between the traditional agrarian populist establishment wing and online activists. While the establishment wing often at least publicly thought that the far-right members went too far, they were in a conundrum as some of the only electorally successful politicians of the party belonged to this extremist wing. So the leadership of the party adopted a policy of quiet toleration to win votes.
Then came the 2008 financial crisis, which transformed the political landscape as general anti-establishment animus was capitalized by The Finns, who started to win ever more impressive electoral victories. As electoral success accumulated, so did the problems caused by the far right-wing of the party. The main barrier to entering the government became the overtly racist activist of The Finns, who adopted the discourse of ethnonationalism when defining Finnish identity. Other parties were only comfortable cooperating with them if guarantees could be made that the extreme wing did not influence government policy. After much trying and side-lining of the leading figures of the far-right wing, finally, in 2015, The Finns managed to enter a coalition government.
This moment was to be the high point of the traditional populist left-leaning establishment of the party and the start of its collapse. The party leadership had believed that it had successfully balanced the nationalist rhetoric that brought it success and political acceptability in the view of the other parties. In fact, the party was at this point ideologically more divided than ever. The online far-right had transformed itself into the party’s grassroots base and felt disconnected from the old-fashioned approach of the leadership. They wanted to move more towards the style of the Sweden Democrats and become a more radical movement modeled on other continental nationalist parties. This tension broke into civil war when in a party congress in 2017, the successor candidate endorsed by Timo Soini lost to the leader of the far-right wing, Jussi Halla-Aho. The party split in two, where the old establishment formed a new party faithful to their original ideals.
The other consequence of this was the expulsion of The Finns from the government. After years of political tribulations, the party had lost grip of the balancing act and, therefore the confidence of the other parties. Whilst in opposition, they have now completed their transformation into a far-right party, both in terms of social and economic policy. The old political discourse that stemmed from the peculiar form of Finnish agrarian populism is almost all gone. It is now replaced by copying and adapting the techniques of, for example, the Law and Justice Party into the Finnish context. By going with the far-right wing of the party, The Finns have in a way Europeanized their own nationalist discourse and ideology.
Although as ironic as this might be, politically, this transformation was a prudent move as the splinter group of the former establishment collapsed only a few months after its foundation. The Finns are also currently expected to win the next municipal election. Regardless, they have not escaped the balancing act between extreme political rhetoric and wider public acceptability. The new leadership is trying to again pivot towards more moderate politics to have a chance to enter the next government. Still, predictably the more extreme membership components are already crying betrayal and are thinking of splitting.
A large portion of the membership views any moves towards moderation as a dilution of the ethnonationalist vision according to which Finnishness should be defined and whose rights the state should protect, and whose it should not. Only recently, Halla-Aho has been forced to close the party’s youth division as they became a liability after openly declaring themselves ethnonationalists, and a completely new party to the right of The Finns has emerged.
Although the extreme wing won the fight within the party on whose version of Finnish nationalism should be championed, it did nothing towards solving the broader problem faced by these types of movements. Namely, how do you advocate a narrow and exclusionary view of Finnish identity whilst at the same time remaining as an acceptable partner to other parties, who often have incompatible policy positions? Tilting too much towards ideological purity will see you out of power, and too much moderation will see you out of supporters. Thus far, no political movement in Finland has maintained a workable balance between the two forces.
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Ylä-Anttila , Matti & Ylä-Anttila , Tuukka. ” Exploiting the Discursive Opportunity of the Euro Crisis: The Rise of The Finns Party.” European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession. ECPR Press (2015): 57-75.
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