Ever since the decision to take the Finns Party in the Finnish government, the international media has repeatedly put a question forward to me: how on earth was it possible to let a populist party to participate in the Finnish government?
To put it briefly, the Finns Party was able to participate in the government, because in Finland the Finns Party is seen to be more or less alike all the other parties. In other words, it is understood to be a legitimate representative of a group of people who have acceptable grievances and have the right to make their voice heard through democratic process. Indeed, the Finns Party was already invited to join the government after the landslide victory in 2011, but at the time the National Coalition Party and the Finns Party were not able to agree on EU policy.
The Finns Party stands on two feet, so to speak. Looking at its party programme, it is a European populist party broadly similar to its counterparts in many other countries such as UKIP and Swedish Democrats. It is anti-European Union, anti-immigration and anti-elite protest party. Its policy on the European Union is not as hostile as it was a couple of years ago, but it still wants Finland to take distance from the EU. It has been particularly critical towards the environmental regulation coming from Brussels.
The Finns Party wants to limit the amount of immigrants to Finland and make it harder to obtain residence permits and asylum status. The Finns Party thinks that the political, cultural and economic elites have diverted from the real people of Finland and it wants to return the power to the common man.
There is the second foot as well, however. In Finland one often emphasizes the national roots of the Finns Party. The Finns Party was founded on the ruins of the Finnish Rural Party that went bankrupt in 1995. The Finnish Rural Party was a protest movement against the modernization of Finland in the 1970s and 1980s. It too was a populist movement though anti-immigration rhetoric played a very small role in the politics of the party, most likely because there was hardly any immigration to speak of. At the time Finland stood outside the European Community and did not even dream of joining it as a full member so there was no need to protest against it either. Instead the Rural Party concentrated on its populist anti-establishment rhetoric.
Importantly, however, though the other parties did not particularly like the Rural Party and the press ridiculed its populist promises (like abolition of unemployment in 6 months), everybody accepted it as a legitimate representative of certain group of people. Indeed, in the 1980s the Rural Party was invited to join the government as a minority partner and at the time there was a general understanding that the party was more or less similar to all the other parties.
This basic understanding applies to the Finns Party today. It calls itself the largest workers party in Finland (as opposed to the Social Democrats and the Left Alliance) and indeed the core of its supporters consists of workers who feel that they have been forced to feel the brunt of the side-effects of globalization: restructurings and layoffs. The media has emphasized the working class habitus of Timo Soini while simultaneously hoping that he would keep the anti-immigration wing of his party in check. Although the Finns Party has been criticized heavily, the leader of the party has escaped the most difficult questions.
One has also to keep in mind that the anti-immigration policy of the Finns Party is actually not that different from the policy of the other parties. There has been a wide consensus among Finnish parties that the amount of immigrants accepted from outside Europe and North America should be minimal. In particular, the Finnish asylum quota and residence permit policy has always been strict. A good example of this thinking is the fact that the first thing the new Minister of the Interior from the National Coalition Party did, was to announce that he seeks to cut the asylum quota from the current 1050 even though the government programme does not necessitate him to do so.
In sum, the press and the other parties accept the Finns Party as a legitimate representative of people that have real grievances in the society. The party has clearly moderated its stance on the European Union in recent years. The immigration policy of the Finns Party is indeed very strict, but Finnish immigration policy has always been strict by international standards. The party has promised to change Finnish politics beyond recognition and now it has the opportunity to do so. We shall see how that works out.
Dr. Erkka Railo
The writer works as a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Parliamentary Studies, the University of Turku