Thursday, April 21, 2011

Finnish Election Drama

This past weekend, the first this year with weather pleasant enough for some serious yard work, Finland held a parliamentary election.  To someone like me, who doesn’t pay that much attention to Finnish politics, these once-every-four-years polls are usually unremarkable, especially when you compare them to the circus that US politics has become. 

Finnish politics has been dominated in recent decades by three main parties:  the National Coalition Party (center-right), the Center Party (well, the name says it all), and the Social Democrats (center-left).  To be honest, I couldn’t reliably say what the differences are between these three, beyond the basic philosophies indicated by their location on the political spectrum.  For example, the National Coalition Party (Kokoomus, in Finnish) is generally more pro-business than the other two, while the Social Democrats are likewise the most pro-labor of the three. 

Fittingly for the consensus nature of Finnish politics, these three parties mostly agree on the main issues and squabble only over details.  At least that’s how it looks to me.  All three are decidedly in favor of Finland’s social-welfare system.  All three support a foreign policy of neutrality and strong international cooperation, though Kokoomus comes closer than the others to envisioning Finland joining NATO.  And all three are squarely behind Finland’s liberal stance on equal rights. 

Timo Soini, leader of the True Finns.
Photo by Soppakanuuna
This isn’t much different from the way the US political scene appears to folks over here.  While Americans might like to think Republicans and Democrats represent diametrically different approaches to government, Finns wouldn’t necessarily see big differences between two.  I would disagree with that view, especially considering the 180-degree direction the Dems and GOP have taken on health care and other issues recently.

Politics here in Finland is, of course, not limited to two parties, or even just the Big Three. Voters can also choose from a dozen or so other parties of varying sizes and political beliefs.  Among the smaller parties that garner enough support to actually make it into parliament are the Swedish People’s Party (historically advocating for Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority), the Left Alliance (the most-mainstream of the parties that survived the turbulent history of Finnish Communism), the Green League, and the Christian Democrats.  A relative newcomer to these also-ran parties is the so-called True Finns Party, or Perussuomalaiset in Finnish.  I’m not sure why this party’s name is invariably translated as “True Finns”, since it actually means “Basic Finns”.  Maybe that somehow doesn't sound as sexy. 

Sexy or not, Perussuomalaiset has been turning heads since Sunday, and not in a good way.  I’ve always found elections in Finland to be fairly sedate affairs.  Campaign ads on TV are nothing like the overly produced spots you see in the States.  Most candidates rely on newspaper advertisements and election placards that are displayed side by side in large, purpose-built aluminum frames set up on sidewalks so passers-by can check out the candidates from different parties.  Flags fly on Election Day itself, and there’s notably higher foot traffic past our house as more people than normal – even for good weather – stroll by on their way to the little hilltop school that serves as the polling station for our neighborhood. 

Voting itself is simple.  You just write the number assigned to your candidate in the circle printed on an otherwise blank paper ballot and drop it in the box.  Non-Finnish permanent residents, such as myself, can vote in municipal elections, but not in national races.  After the polls close, the election results dominate TV programming, but the vibe is extremely low-key compared to the Las Vegas glitz of US election coverage.  The votes are usually all counted and the winners declared well before midnight, and the results themselves are, from my point of view, always a bit ho-hum. 

Not this Sunday.  To the shock, and I mean that literally, of most people I know, the True Finns won a landslide victory.  They didn’t come in first, or even second.  For this renegade, protest party, a third-place finish was enough to upset the apple cart of Finnish politics.  By winning 19% of the vote nationwide, the True Finns added a whopping 34 parliament seats to the mere five they held previously.  Only five seats shy of the 44 won by first-place Kokoomus, the True Finns came surprisingly close to putting their charismatic and eloquent leader, Timo Soini, in the driver seat of the next government.  This has surely scared the bejesus out many Finns.  

Voters checking out the candidates.
It’s not as if the True Finns came out of nowhere.  The party was founded in 1995, from the ashes – so to speak – of the populist Finnish Rural Party, which had fizzled out after its own charismatic and eloquent leader stepped down.  Until this Sunday, however, the True Finns have had at best a marginal influence on Finnish politics. 

It’s tempting to compare the True Finns to the Tea Party in the States.  There are similarities.  Both are protest movements tapping into grass-root dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.  Both hark back to a more “traditional” past, and both gleefully thumb their noses at the political establishment.  But while the Tea Party is fixated on lowering taxes and shrinking the size of government, the True Finns seems to be fully in favor of the welfare state and progressive taxation, which makes it positively leftist.  What sets the True Finns apart from the mainstream Finnish parties is its more blatant appeal to nativism.  It is skeptical of the EU and favors restricting the flow of new immigrants, at least those who come here on humanitarian grounds.  These views, to say the least, are not shared by most Finns, but are nonetheless signs of a worrying trend in this country.  Whether this trend eventually propels the True Finns to more shocking electoral wins and an even bigger role in government will have to wait until another springtime Sunday, four years from now.  

1 comment:

  1. Not having a really good view of Finnish life or politics, I couldn't say one way or the other if the True Finns resemble the "Tea Party". I will say this, however: The The Party is completely and utterly a construct of corporate wealth. It was created by and subsidized by billionaire investors; down to recruiting members, printing placards, supporting mailing lists, and even providing transportation for people to so-called "protests" and other such gatherings. It's the most blatant example I've ever seen of corporate wealth being used to influence politics. Until now corporate money has always been used to influence elected officials via lobbying and through election donations. This is the only time I've ever seen the power elite buy the voters at this most basic level. Does the True Finn Party have similar corporate support and origins? Or are they just tapping into a vein of xenophobia?