Populist Finns reaching for power

Sunday’s election is a moment of truth for Finnish voters and the Finns party

Even by the informal standards of Finnish politics, the bearish politician Timo Soini is an amiable and approachable figure.

Four years ago, the man signing autographs and swapping jokes on a Helsinki square came from behind to capture a fifth of the vote and lead his “True Finns” into parliament as Finland’s third-largest political party.

In 2011, critics saw that success – with populist DNA, a Eurosceptic outlook and xenophobic streak – as part of a wider, worrying trend around Europe.

This time around, support for “The Finns” (they have dispensing with “True”) has dipped slightly in polls, to about 16 per cent, but Soini’s party will still be one of the big four in Finland’s new parliament.

Given his political maxim – “the people always know” – Soini (52) knows that voter concern over Greek bailouts – a gift to him in 2011 – has been overshadowed this time around by economic problems at home: three years of stagnant growth, a rising jobless rate of 10 per cent and spiralling national debt.

He kept his party in opposition in 2011 rather than compromise and back Greek bailouts in power.

On the election trail, he has portrayed this as an attempt by the political establishment to isolate him at the country’s expense. What followed, he says, was four lost years.

The warring outgoing right-left coalition failed to agree important reforms and shed two parties and several leaders along the way. So Sunday’s general election is a moment of truth – for Finnish voters and the Finns. Timo Soini is ready for power.

Solid base

“We have established ourselves as one of the big parties in parliament and are on a much more solid base, this is not just the Timo Soini show any more,” he says.

Despite his modesty, the leader of 17 years is the man largely responsible for his party’s blend of ethnic nationalism, left-wing economics and social conservatism.

“People know what to expect from me,” he said, ”good and bad.”

This mix of good and bad has been a major issue in the campaign.

Its hard line of immigration, and some MPs’ flirtations with political extremists and Nazi salutes, have been a gift to its critics.

However Soini has kept his deputies on a tight leash of late and never makes extremist remarks himself.

In a nod to this tactic, one critical journalist titled her exposé of his party: I'm Not Racist, I'm Just Chasing the Xenophobic Vote.

Although Finland remains an immigration- and diversity- friendly country, this “I’m not racist but . . . ” line pushed by the Finns party has allowed it to capture and cultivate a disaffected minority and hardened the tone of public debate.

“In a positive sense, Soini has mobilised people who don’t vote by questioning the unanimity of the political elite,” says Prof Kimmo Grönlund, research director at the Åbo Academy University.

However he sees a coarsening of the political rhetoric, particularly on EU and social issues. “Under pressure from Mr Soini,” he says, “even the [centre-left] Social Democrats (SDP) now feel obliged to come out against further immigration.”

The Finns leader is aware of his influence but, citing his maxim, says he is confident “the people know who was original and who is a replica”.

If, as is likely, the opposition Centre Party wins on Sunday, its leader Juhu Sipilä has already signalled that an alliance with the Finns is likely.

However the devil lies in the coalition detail and, with a €6 billion budget hole to plug, Soini has been vague on where he thinks the knife should be laid.

Greek bailouts

Soini insists his party will remain opposed to backing further Greek bailouts – what he calls EU-IMF programme “pyramid schemes”, but he has been evasive on the issue in television debates and, even if his party or a new Helsinki coalition opposes a third package, rules for the ESM bailout fund could force a Finnish contribution regardless.

Soini says he sees no alternative to a Greek default – although it is worth noting that four years ago, he predicted the same for Ireland.

By pushing for power – Soini wants the finance or foreign portfolio – he knows a tricky balancing act looms as statesman and leader of a populist party.

He insists he is not pushing for Finland to leave the EU or euro, but that European integration should go no further.

That has left senior Finnish civil servants concerned that a coalition with Soini could be Finland’s least EU-friendly administration for many years.

Former prime minister Matti Vanhanen though says not to underestimate the calming effects of a cabinet post and ministerial car on politicians.

“Mr Soini will have to be much more flexible and pragmatic and forget what his members are thinking,” says Vanhanen drily. “It happens quite often.”

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