Philipp putting his Ph.D to good use for once…
A lot of people both back in Germany and from the international community are shocked about the new Finnish government and asked whether this makes us re-think our decision to move here.
The short answer’s no, but there is a long answer as well.
So, what happened?
Finland’s all-female fronted center-left coalition, led by Sanna Marin from the Social Democrats, supported by Li Anderson from the Left Alliance, Katri Kulmuni from the Center Party, and Maria Ohisalo from the Greens has suffered a defeat in the general elections and has been replaced by a center-right coalition led by the National Coalition (Kokoomus) and the Basic Finns (Perussuomalaiset).
That sounds like quite a tectonic shift at first glance and makes an observer wonder what happened, but we will get to both of that in a second.
First, let’s start with the political parties to the right, because “National Coalition” sounds really weird to the German or central European ear. So the good news is that the National Coalition is your standard “we are economically competent” traditional conservative party, and that neither them nor the Basic Finns are as socially conservative as even some of the old-school conservative parties in Central Europe: Their programmes don't demand to do away with gay marriage, abortion, or go down similar paths of madness. Also, no-one seriously believes Putin to be the good guy, again, unlike with many right-wing populists elsewhere.
That’s where the good news stop, sadly. The Basic (or True, or Fundamentalist, “perus” is not 1:1 translatable) Finns are your typical run off the mill right wing populist party: Against lazy immigrants who live off social services, steal our jobs, bring their families and take or even rape our woman, denying climate change while promising cheaper fuel, etc etc.
Yet, according to the social science boffins at the ParlGov Project, they are “right wing” only on the level of Germany’s CSU or Britain’s Tories, this means not quite as bad as the populist parties to the right of those (UKIP or AfD). A comfort, but only a small one.
And how did we get here?
First of all, we have to understand that this election was close. The three largest parties - National Coalition, Basic Finns, and Social Democrats, came in within 0,9 percentage points. Second, we have to understand that unusual for a governing party the Social Democrats gained votes compared to the last election. But the last election was close as well, and since they only gained 2,2 percent while the competitors to the right gained more, they fell from first place to third. At the same time, the Social Democrat’s coalition partners, especially the Greens and the Center, got quite a beating, paving the way for said center-right coalition.
The reasons behind this minor, but high-impact swing to the right are numerous. Firstly, the inflation and increase of energy prices of course had been pinned on the government, with the National Coalition, as they should as good conservatives, building their whole campaign around boosting the economy, cutting public spending and reducing debt. Secondly, even independent of campaigning, it’s a known pattern in all western democracies that when the economy struggles, people tend to vote conservative. Thirdly, like in many countries, the rural, especially male, working-class population feels underserved by the mainstream political parties. In Finland traditionally, the Center Party was representing the interests of the rural elite, the farmers and landowners, and the common man knew what was good for the farmers was good for him, so he voted Center as well.
Since the end of the Soviet Union, though, the Center Party has lost touch with their rural voters. While the region around the old industrial capital of Tampere went to the left, the vast majority of sparsely populated counties that do not profit from startup booms or green tech companies went to the Basic Finns. In this way, their success can also be explained as a failure of the Center Party to serve the interests of their core voter base, especially keeping in mind that they have been enjoying a “kingmaker” position of being part of both center-left and center-right governments for decades.
All in all, it was obvious at the end of election night that the National Coalition’s Petteri Orpo would try forming a government with the Basic Finns, using the usually liberal Swedish Democrats and the socially fundamentalist Christian Democrats as padding to get a majority in. My hope was that the rural, poor core voter base of the Basic Finns, being reliant on government support to a large degree, would make the Basic Finns block the most ghastly inhumane cuts into the welfare state the National Coalition was planning in the name of austerity, while their pro-business stance would block the most awful anti-immigration policies from the Basic Finns, basically neutralizing the most toxic aspects of both parties.
Boy, I was wrong!
The Orpo Government’s program looks exactly like what you would expect from a “pro-business” conservative party: Stopping “welfare traps” so “people see that work is worth something again”, not by raising wages but by cutting benefits, weakening protections for employees, making the first sick day unpaid, all the stuff no one wants or needs but that sounds “tough on lazy people in the welfare hammock”. To pacify the Basic Finn’s voters, there is a cut in fuel taxation to compensate for climate goals not being relaxed, and mostly a brutally anti-business tightening of immigration rules that no one expected.
I have heard a lot of criticism about these immigration policies, calling them “racist”, even “most racist in Europe”, and "fascist”.
For the record, they are neither. And especially because we have to assume that a sizeable share of Basic Finn voters, members of parliament, even government ministers are actual racists, we should be careful which labels we use, so we don’t run out of labels when they really get started. Tightening work visa requirements, extending waiting periods for permanent residency and citizenship, adding language requirements in a small country with a notoriously complex language that is tough to acquire as an adult is not racist. It’s of course rooted in a racist or at least xenophobic mindset and designed to appeal to voters who share such attitudes, but as such it’s “only” some timelines changed and some requirements tightened. And for good reason, since the (on paper) pro-immigration Swedish Democrats have to back the program as well.
Furthermore, while nationalism and racism are of course at the core of even a mild right wing populist party like the Basic Finns, I do not really think that fascism is part of their or their voter’s ideology.
More generally speaking, Finland as a country and society is not more racist or awful than other countries. Yes, 30% of working-age men voted Basic Finns, and yes, “color chart” racism that gets worse with darker skin color as well as prejudices against people from the Baltics are rife, but things aren't better elsewhere, looking at weekly attacks on refugee shelters in Germany, for example. And at least here in the Helsinki metro area, most people are open-minded, nice, welcoming, and go out of their way to apologize for their new government. While racists and other entitled assholes sadly exist and awful exceptions thus exist, from the experience of me and those around me, Finland still is a rather safe place to walk around, even alone, even at night, independent of gender or skin color. That can’t be said of even some parts of Berlin. We can name the negatives and demand change and progress without resorting to superlatives and name-calling.
That being said, the government program on immigration looks really bad because it’s not only inhumane, but also massively harmful for the Finnish economy. We not only need tech workers for the Startup ecosystem, we also need nurses, carpenters, everything. Demographic change is real and without massive immigration, society can not sustain. So doing everything possible to scare those workers away (to countries with an easier to learn language and better weather) does not sound like a winning move for a self-described pro-business party.
So, what do we do now?
We are campaigning against the proposed immigration reforms (with both business lobby groups and the unions against them they will hopefully die in some committee) but mostly we are on death watch regarding how long this government will last.
After 11 weeks of what seemed like gruesome negotiations, the new government made it not even to the end of week two in power without losing one Basic Finns Minister due to his far-right ties. Earlier, in a confidence vote, the Swedish Democrats voted with the opposition against their own government’s minister. And just to make matters worse, the Basic Finn’s leader Riikka Purra decided to replace the minister with someone who not only has far-right ties, but also was expelled from the National Coalition for allegedly sexually molesting a minor not even a year ago. At the same time, ministers from the Christian Democrats try to boost their fundamentalist credentials by proclaiming members of the government should not have taken part in pride week events.
This leaves me with the impression that Orpo does not have the radicals in his government in check, that Riikka Purra seems to feel like she can get away with anything, and is wasting that power on making a point of her minister choices being as poisonous as possible. The only thing neither the Christian Democrats nor the Basic Finns seem to be interested in is actually governing the country. So with the Social Democrats on the rise again in the polls one can only hope that the Orpo government as it stands will not even make it to the halftime mark of the term, but implode even earlier, being replaced with a centrist National Coalition - Social Democrat government.
Update, 12.7.2023: In the five days since I wrote this, posts by Riikka Purra on Jussi Halla-Aho's blog (former Basic Finns leader) surfaced in which her ten years younger self drops the mask of respectability and shows he true racist face, from using the Finnish n-word across describing Muslim men as salivating at the sight of a blonde women like her all the way to her phantazising about literally gunning down immigrants on commuter trains. Her, these people, this party, are not fit to govern and I doubt this government will see the end of the year.