Ann-Cathrine Jungar

2011 Finnish Parliamentary Elections: About True Finns, One Language and All Sorts of Evil Others

The coming Finnish Parliamentary elections on April 17th 2011 are considered by many to be a turning point. Not only that the three major parties – the major opposition party the Social Democratic Party (SDP/ Suomen Sosialidemokraattinen Puolue/ Finlands Socialdemokratiska Parti), and the Center Party (Kesk/ Keskusta/ Centerpartiet) and the National Coalition Party (Kok/ Kansallinen Kokoomus/ Samlingspartiet), which are the main coalition partners in the present government -  are engaged in a bitter competition with one another for the votes of an electorate ever more wary of the economic situation in the country, the debate about increasing the retirement age, and the Finnish participation in the Eurozone and the European Financial Stability Facility. A series of opinion polls have constantly indicated that the Finnish radical right populist (RRP) party the True Finns (PS/ Perussuomalaiset/ Sannfinländarna ) are closing the gap and if earlier analyses of the Finnish politics discussed about the Big Three (the SDP, the Kok, and the Kesk) now one has to talk about the Big Four, thus acknowledging the newly gained prominence of the PS on the Finnish political stage.

Indeed, most surveys placed the PS of Timo Soini past the two digit threshold this year, somewhere between 14 and as high as 18.4 (in English, here), more recently at 16.2 percent (in Finnish, tässä; in Swedish, här). This is by no means a low score, having in mind that the fragmented nature of the Finnish political scene with various political entities, and that the party does represent the furthermost right wing position on the political specter clad in populist appeals to social equity and social conservatism. Even more so, there are a series of voices discussing the possibility of taking the PS and Soini in the government for the next term. This has lead to a much more neutral line of speeches chosen lately by Soini, but has not in the least dispelled fears of a xenophobic, Fennoman backlash doubled with even more economic wrangling around the issue of Finnish participation in the Euro-zone and the wider EU cooperation.

Nonetheless, as researcher of populism Ann-Cathrine Jungar aptly noted (for the detailed interview, in Swedish, här), a co-optation of the PS to the government would definitely set Finland aside in the Scandinavian context, where the other RRP parties have succeeded to influence the mainstream political agenda but never partook in the actual government. In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party (DF/ Dansk Folkeparti) has supported a center-right coalition government since 2001 and succeeded to change the Danish political debate beyond recognition. In Sweden, the Sweden Democrats (SD/ Sverigedemokraterna) have only recently managed to gain parliamentary representation, and despite their general support for the present center-right coalition (in 91% of the cases the SD voted with the governmental coalition in the Parliament, see  more in Swedish, här), they are isolated on the political scene. The last but not least, in Norway the Progress Party (FrP/ Fremskrittspartiet/ Framstegspartiet) has been constantly excluded from government talks but it is not certain for how long -  if the PS is indeed taken in for the next Finnish government they might serve as an example for the coming 2013 elections in Norway.

The True Finns and the (Only and True) Language Debate Reborn

This aside, one other aspect that cannot go unnoticed is the extreme media attention focus on the PS, and especially on Soini. This even determined some politicians to note rather bitterly that Soini turned into a media phenomenon. A short look at Helsingin Sanomat (HS) the main Finish language Finish newspaper, that enjoys an unchallenged position among the Finish newspapers, reveals that the PS, and especially Soini have been a constant news source. Even Hufvudstadsbladet (Hbl) the Swedish language newspaper and much smaller in reach counterpart of HS has payed special anttention to the rise of RRP in Finland. This is also a result of the extremely polarizing debate concerning the status of the Swedish language in Finland as the second official language of the country, and the obligativity of Swedish language teaching in the schools across the country (generally known under the derogatory term pakkoruotsi/ tvångssvenska).

The events culminated with a public demonstration on the steps of the Finnish Parliament (Eduskunta/ Finlands riksdag) organized by two organizations that rally their supporters among the PS voters: the so called Language Choice Society (Vapaa kielivalinta) and the Association of Finnish Culture and Identity (Suomalaisuuden liitto/ Finskhetsförbundet) that distinguished itself through an increasingly vociferous demand for transforming Finland into a mono-lingual and mono-cultural country, that is with Finnish as the sole official language. The present language debate reminds a lot about a similar language strife in the 1920s and 1930s that was never actually sorted out but rather died out after WWII as a consequence of the common external threat that the Soviet Union embodied in the post-1945 era. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the PS among the most vocal supporters of the school reform that would remove Swedish from the mandatory subjects in Finnish schools. The reasoning appears to be a greater choice for the pupils and the possibility of replacing Swedish with Russian in the Eastern parts of the country. Nonetheless such a move is strongly resisted by the major parties, both the SDP and the Kok being firmly against it, while the Kesk through acting PM Mari Kiviniemi has opened the door for ‘experimentation’ with teaching Russian instead of Swedish in Eastern Finland. This is of course strongly disapproved with by the Swedish People’s Party (Sfp/ Svenska folkpartiet i Finland/ Suomen ruotsalainen kansanpuolue/ Rkp).

In this context, it comes as a surprise that the PS collects any support from the Swedish-speaking Finns, which reaches a much as 4 percent of the overall voting options of the Swedish-speaking Finns in the capital Helsinki/ Helsingfors, and the southern province of Uusimaa/ Nyland (detailed breakdown of the party support among the Swedish-speaking Finns, in Swedish, här). One needs to bear in mind that the PS stereotypically portrays the Swedish-speaking Finns as some sort of linguistic over-class that has a monopolistic position on the Finnish economic capital, and forcefully imposes the language issue on a submissive Finnish-speaking Finnish political establishment.

True Finns, True Men: Conservatism, Controlling Women’s Bodies, and Symbolic Political Violence

Perhaps one of the most delicate episodes that Timo Soini would like to quickly forget is that connected to Oona Riipinen‘s question concerning the right for abortion of women victims of rape, which basically rendered Soini speechless. Riipinen‘s legitimate question, coming from a 15-year old Finnish woman, highlighted the patriarchal attempts to control women’s bodies, as the PS and Soini personally have attempted to profile the party on the conservative side of the political specter – where according to researcher Åssa Bengtsson the PS lies very closely to the Finnish Christian-Democrats (KD/ Kristillisdemokraatit/ Kristdemokraterna) (archive, Hbl 19.03.2011, p. 17). Even more so, as university professor Jan Sundberg noted  with regard to the PS election program (archive, Hbl 02.04.2011, p. 17), the idea of encouraging the birth of Finnish babies at any costs goes hand in hand with that of restricting further the coming of foreigners into the country. In a Finland in which Finnish students would divide their time between study and making ‘true Finnish’ children, there would be no need for new immigrants to be taken in and no resources would be spent with their adaptation to the Finnish system, reasons the PS. A similar critique on the gender aspect of the PS‘s political platform for the coming elections came from a feminist researcher, Suvi Keskinen, who argued that the party’s general xenophobia is easily obscured with excuses (the whole text in Finnish, tässä). In her opinion piece published by HS, Keskinen criticized how the debate has tended to focus on the failings of the immigrant population to achieve gender equality (in terms of forced marriages, the head-scarves, the female genital mutilation, honor killings, and other forms of violence). Drawing a comparison between the situation in Denmark and in Finland, she noticed how the RRP parties in these countries have transformed the generally heterogeneous immigrant population into one solid and homogeneous block and used this for their political goals in their attempts to curb, if not to totally stop immigration into these countries. In conclusion, heteropatriarchal misogynism goes hand in hand with xenophobia, and the civilizing gaze is only focused on the need to ‘liberate’ immigrant women from the patriarchal oppression of their husbands, while Finnish women focus on giving birth to ‘true’ Finnish offspring.

There is also a growing irritation among the established parties with the PS party members, especially because of their heavy-handed style of campaigning (in Finnish, tässä; in English, here). Indeed, it appears that the PS footmen do not shy away from harassing their political opponents, either by resorting to physical intimidation or by making racist remarks at the opponents’ political candidates with a foreign background (such as those against the SDP‘s candidate Ranbir Sodhi in the city of Vantaa/ Vanda, who was ‘recommended’ to do politics in ‘his own home country’ – despite him living in Finland for 20 years and having a Finnish citizenship).  In another example of exercising power over a helpless human being caught in a grim economic situation, thus bordering with symbolic violence, one PS parliamentary candidate had paid various beggars of Rromani origin to display his banner while begging in the streets of the Finnish capital (in Swedish, här).

However, such xenophobic remarks and acts need to be understood in the wider anti-immigration rhetoric of the PS, an excerpt of which even Soini offered to the audience of the election debate held in Swedish hosted by YLE (in Swedish only available from Finland, här). In the discussion about Finland’s becoming an increasingly diverse, even multicultural society (the example chosen by the moderators was signage in the capital city in 7 languages), Soini took a very critical stance on immigration and argued that people come to Finland in an attempt to profit from the country’s generous welfare benefits. This falls very much in line with assimilating foreigners, immigrants and asylum seekers in general, to a class of assisted non-productive denizens, very much in line with the anti-immigration reasoning specific to other RRP parties across the EU, such as the Danish DF and Swedish SD.

From this point of view one can argue that there has been a convergence between the PS, that can trace its genealogy to the agrarian conservative populist party Finnish Rural Party (SMP/ Suomen Maaseudun Puolue/ Finska landsbygdspartiet), on the one hand, and the other RRP parties that have a more radical rightist, even crypto-racist past such as the SD, on the other. Even though most political analysts and journalists in Finland are still skeptical to equaling the PS to the Swedish SD, it seems that the two parties are converging towards a very similar political platform characterized by moral conservatism dressed in Christian clothes and welfare chauvinism, disguising more extreme racist views.

There are however a series of interesting questions arising from this situation. Will the PS succeed in its charm offensive and become a coalition partner for the next government? How much of their RRP appeal would be preserved in the governing act and how wide a space for ideological manouvering will they be allowed? If indeed the PS and the Sfp/Rkp will become coalition partners, will Swedish language  in particular and Swedish culture in Finland in general have any chance for survival? Will the anti-immigration sentiment escalate even more? And even more so, will the PS in a Finnish government  set the example for its sister parties, as the Danish DF and even the Swedish SD?

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Friday, April 8th, 2011 Research No Comments