By Chris Dite
Finland went to the polls last weekend in the context of a war to the east, a rising cost of living, and growing inequality. The mood was cynical, and Finns delivered a harsh rebuke to the ruling Social Democrat–led coalition. The results have potentially opened the door to power for the far-right.
Two parties managed to garner slightly more than 20 percent of the overall vote. They were the National Coalition Party (NCP) with 20.8 percent and the far-right Finns Party with 20.1 percent. Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s Social Democratic Party (SDP) slightly increased its vote but only came in third with 19.9 percent of the vote share. All bar one of the SDP’s current coalition partners — the Centre Party, the Greens, the Left Alliance, and the Swedish People’s Party — lost votes.
Coalition governments are the norm in Finland, and the NCP’s leader Petteri Orpo now faces a momentous choice. He can invite the Finns Party into his new government as the junior partner, which runs the not-so-serious risk of alienating the NCP’s wealthy, pro-EU base. Or he can attempt to entice Sanna Marin’s SDP into an “adults in the room” blue-red coalition.
The Finns would jump at the opportunity to be part of the junior party in government; it would allow them to reap the benefits without the responsibility. The SDP will be understandably cautious — its brand can only suffer from participation in a pro-austerity government. But like all the moderate left in Finland, the party is sensitive to the blackmail that its nonparticipation will allow the far right into the halls of power.
Whichever option Orpo chooses, he will still have to coax a smattering of the smaller parties to join the new coalition as a buffer. Depending on how the NCP plays it, these negotiations could be shockingly swift or painfully protracted.
The Finns Party was the real winner of the election. In general terms, its campaign was anti-immigrant, anti-left, and Eurosceptic. But in a day-to-day sense it hedged on every conceivable issue. Candidates in particular regions would state a position, only for it to be half-denied by the leadership. The leadership itself changed policies multiple times mid-election. Its approach was to try to be everything to everyone, within the confines of right-wing populism.
The Finns lifted their playbook straight from the US Republicans. They dog-whistled to the most extreme racists, and weaponized nonsense culture-war topics like “gender ideology in schools.” They accused public school teachers — whom they associate with the Greens and the Left Alliance — of censorship, while simultaneously campaigning to end feminism in universities and vegetarian food in school canteens. While the Finns boasted elected representatives like Teuvo Hakkarainen and fielded candidates like Wille Rydman — both accused of sleaziness involving children — their supporters ran a terror campaign lodging false complaints of child abuse against progressive activists.
Current leader Riikka Purra has played the victim throughout all this. She described the Finns Party as “huddling like penguins in a storm” while the other parties unfairly accuse it of flirting with Nazism. She had demanded that outgoing prime minister Marin apologize when she called a potential NCP-Finns government a “blue-black” coalition, making implicit reference to the Finnish fascist movement that violently terrorized the Left in the 1930s.
But the accusation is entirely fair. The youth wing of the Finns Party formed a stooge party during this election literally called the Blue-Black Movement (Sinimusta Liike). The party’s program was so extreme — including blatant antisemitism, banning the promotion of non-heterosexuality, and calling for a register of ethnic minorities — that it was forced to delete most of it to legally register as a political party. It then took advantage of a legal loophole to put all of the content back into its election propaganda. Its candidates included an attempted murderer who stabbed a nineteen-year-old almost to death and blamed his victim’s ethnicity. Sinimusta Liike polled poorly on election day, but it served its intended purpose of making the Finns Party look far less extreme.
The Finns Party has also campaigned against the banning of the swastika — just as the symbol has made a return to the streets of Finland during national day parades.
The Finns Party openly courted the NCP, particularly toward the end of the election campaign. A key example is the “competitiveness agreement” that the Finns Party helped establish during its last time in government in 2016, when the NCP was in charge of the Ministry of Finance. This resurfaced as a key 2023 election issue. The agreement froze wages, extended working hours, and partially shifted mandatory social security costs to workers rather than employers. It is estimated that the agreement has so far cost Finnish workers €11.3 billion. While the Finns Party implied throughout its campaign that it was in favor of transferring some costs back to employers, it changed its tune at the eleventh hour.
The outgoing government was a coalition of very different parties — from conservatives to anti-capitalists. The Social Democrats were in charge, with the conservatives a kind of deputy, and the smaller coalition partners like the Greens and the Left Alliance taking the lead of smaller ministries like Environment and Education. In part this cooperation was based on keeping the Finns Party out of government.
But from its inception, this coalition contained a fatal contradiction: the second-largest party was the leader of the previous right-wing coalition government. In essence, all the coalition partners agreed to give the Ministry of Finance to the very group whose economic agenda they had just spent three years campaigning against.
This left them understandably open to attacks from conservatives that they were all talk and no action. If the SDP and the Left Alliance were so passionate about transferring social security costs back to employers, the NCP and media commentators asked, why didn’t they do it during their last three-and-a-half years in power?
Greens leader and outgoing environment minister Maria Ohisalo seemed to accidentally reinforce this accusation in her concession speech on Sunday. She promised that “we are going to make a full noise in the parliament. With a smaller group, but with a hell of a lot more energy.” One imagines that her supporters would have hoped for the maximum extension of energy while the party actually held power in the Ministry of the Environment.
The Left Alliance lost five of its sixteen seats. The party had some principled moments during its time in power. Left Alliance representatives were the only party MPs in the Finnish Parliament to vote against joining NATO, and leader Li Andersson was the only party head to oppose Finnish participation in NATO nuclear weapon exercises during the election debates. But the party was inescapably tarred by its association with anti-worker legislation like a draconian ban on striking by health care workers. While the party might claim it did what it did reluctantly, the fact remains that its participation in such anti-worker measures was entirely voluntary.
The Swedish People’s Party — which represents the wealthy Swedish-speaking minority in Finland — was the only coalition partner that didn’t lose any seats. It was also the sole government party to refuse to rule out entering a coalition with the Finns Party. It has only spent fifteen out of the past hundred years in opposition, and is notoriously flexible on any policy other than the promotion of the Swedish language. It is likely to play a kingmaker role in any blue-black or blue-red coalition.
All these former coalition partners will now be licking their wounds. The Left Alliance will hopefully be learning the lessons of yet another disastrous few years as the junior partner in a centrist government.
The exact composition of the next Finnish government is not yet clear. But one thing is absolutely certain. Against the backdrop of the war next door, a smug Finnish elite will further enrich itself while ramping up anti-immigrant sentiment and lowering living standards for everyone else. (IPA Service)