Little man's fears fuel the rise of big man of Finnish politics

 

A right-wing populist party is poised for a big breakthrough in Sunday’s election, writes DEREK SCALLYin Helsinki

WITH HIS amiable humour and bearish gait, it’s easy to see why Timo Soini is big in Finland. Just how big will become clear on Sunday when, polls predict, a record number of voters will back his “True Finns” party after an energetic campaign of nationalist, anti-immigration and EU-critical rhetoric that has shattered Finland’s political consensus. For the first time in memory a Finnish election has been a suspense-filled race – for Finns and for the rest of Europe.

Settling down for an interview in Helsinki’s monumental parliament building, Mr Soini seems like an unlikely revolutionary: a bespectacled, heavy-set, devout Roman Catholic – one of just 9,000 in Finland. His Damascus-like conversion from the Lutheran faith took place in 1985 after an “amazing” encounter with a nun in St Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney.

On Sunday he hopes to end decades of a political arrangement whereby Finland’s three large parties – all pro-EU and pro-euro – have shared the reins in rotating coalitions. Nearly a fifth of voters seem to agree with the need for change, with support for the True Finns spiking since Mr Soini announced his opposition to euro zone bailouts. Sunday’s vote, he says, is a “referendum on Portugal”.

After vetoing loans to Lisbon, Mr Soini’s ambition if he enters office, is a roll-back of the EU to a free-trade union before what he sees as an inevitable euro zone collapse.

“The Irish people have my every sympathy,” says Mr Soini, a regular visitor to the country. His opposition to the Irish bailout, he says, stems from a situation “where the IMF and EU come ... and tell you what to do, and that is what is happening now”.

“For me economic monetary union does not function and cannot function with so many different economies. In the end default is inevitable in Ireland, and also in Greece and Portugal,” he said. “What I am afraid of is that this new economic governance is the federal structure, and that’s not what I want. I want to go back to the Stability and Growth Pact, which would have worked if France and Greece hadn’t breached it themselves.”

Born in 1962, Soini joined a precursor to the True Finns, the Finnish Rural Party, in 1979 aged 16 and served as vice-chairman from 1989 on. A former MEP, he campaigned against the Lisbon Treaty in association with Libertas, which, he says, “is quite quiet now but you never know what is going to happen”.

The Timo Soini sensation cannot be explained by politics alone. In a land of infamously poor communicators like Finland – and its politicians are no exception – a gifted orator like Mr Soini can be king.

“He is well-educated but he speaks the language that is down to earth,” said Prof Tuomo Martikainen, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Helsinki. He says Soini, a former student, has been polishing his populist credentials since writing his master’s thesis on the subject.

Soini’s 1988 thesis describes the ideal populist leader as a “folksy person” and “saviour”, for whom “the voice of the people is the voice of God”. The populist “concretises the listeners’ societal condition” while his populist policies are “a gospel from this world, the tidings of joy for the poor and those in trouble”.

“I think his thesis on populism inspired him because Timo is very good in spotting the latent atmosphere and, when cleavages surface, exploiting them,” says Prof Martikainen.

There is much unhappiness to exploit here: concerns about the welfare state and a growing income gap; fears about globalisation and disillusionment with politics after a donations scandal – not to mention a latent suspicion of the EU.

Many Finnish analysts, however, think that, in tapping into people’s fears to garner support, Mr Soini has let a dangerous genie out of the bottle.

The True Finns have tapped a historical suspicion of immigrants – who make up 4 per cent of the population – to make immigration an election issue. Mr Soini’s popularity has soared after blog posts describing foreigners as criminals and asylum seekers “African gang rapists” and “parasites on taxpayer money”.

Campaigners from many political parties have reported verbal and physical abuse at the hands of True Finns campaigners.

Mr Soini admits that a small number in his party have controversial views about minorities, but he also claims he has been targeted for his minority Catholic views, in particular his pro-life stance. “Those who say [they are] more tolerant than others have been extremely intolerant,” he said.

Asked how much his thesis has inspired his political career, he says “quite a lot”. “The basic thing is the case of the little man is very important,” he says, visibly confident Sunday’s vote will be pay-off for his campaign against the euro zone bailouts.

“Everyone knows the boat is leaking,” he says, “and everyone knows the captain lied – since Leonard Cohen.”