THE FINNS are the happiest nation in the world, according to the United Nations, and tied with Sweden and Norway for the freest, according to Freedom House. They are also at or near the top in education, not to mention consumption of coffee. But after the national election on April 14th, they have given up their claim to have solved the problem of far-right populism. The Finns Party (PS), an anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic party previously known in English as the True Finns, surged in the final weeks and took 17.5% of the vote, just a whisker behind the winning Social Democrats (SDP) at 17.7%. The SDP will probably now form a centre-left government, but as in so much of Europe, the far right’s strength will make things complicated.
The PS’s result was almost exactly the same as in 2015. But after that election, the country’s centre-right National Coalition and Centre parties thought they had tamed the populists by bringing them into the ruling coalition, forcing them to take responsibility for compromises such as observing EU migration policy. Indeed, in 2017 the PS’s frustrated hard-liners quit the government while its more moderate MPs (including the then-leader) split off into a new faction called Blue Reform.
Yet in the election, the PS’s voters backed the party’s old stalwarts, while Blue Reform failed to win any seats. As a result, the PS is now as strong as ever, and more extreme. Its new leader once wrote blog posts affirming racial differences in intelligence and hoping that left-wing female politicians would be raped by migrants. The party’s campaign video (a still from which is pictured above) is a short horror film, in which the people’s fury congeals into a “pissed-off monster” who attacks the country’s masked and traitorous leaders.
Other parties say they will not negotiate with PS. Antti Rinne, the SDP’s leader, will try to build a coalition that matches the electorate’s move to the left after four years of centre-right rule. His most likely partners are the Greens, who also did well, and the liberal National Coalition. In terms of policy, the leftward shift may be modest. All parties but PS agree on the goal of making the country carbon-neutral by 2035. Extensive hydropower and nuclear energy make this realistic. (Still, notes Ilkka Haavisto of EVA, a think-tank, the PS implied that the government wanted to ban cars.)
The other big challenge before the next government is benefit reform. The country is moving towards an active, Danish-style employment policy aimed at returning the jobless to work, but the last government demanded that the unemployed find work or training within a short deadline or face cuts in their stipends.
That was too harsh, says Joonas Rahkola, head of the SDP’s policy unit. “People have a sense of unfairness, and are insecure about their future.” The party wants to raise the education and elder-care budgets. It should also push companies to sign better contracts with flexworkers, says Hannu Jouhki, head of the country’s trade-union association. Insecure job conditions, he says, can push voters towards populism.
As elsewhere in Europe, the election leaves Finland’s parliament more fragmented. It is harder for mainstream parties to form majorities when populists take a sixth or more of the vote. Last week, across the Gulf of Finland in Estonia, the ruling Centre Party broke its campaign promise and cut a coalition deal that included the far-right EKRE party. The centrist Reform party, which finished first in the election in March but lost its chance to form a government, reacted furiously. In Finland, the reaction was more phlegmatic. The Finns have already tried that approach.