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Populists in Europe (8/8): The Xenophobic nature of True Finns

Saturday, 17 May, 2014 - 10:55

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In Finland, the True Finns or PS currently have 38 MPs out of a total of 200 in the Eduskunta, the Finnish Parliament. But these so-called patriots have xenophobic tendencies. 

Until 2011 there were 39 True Finn MPs out of 200. But one of them was excluded last year by PS head Timo Soini. This party is derived from Veikko Vennamo’s Finnish Rural Party (SMP) which brought together Karelian farmers dispossessed by the 1940 Soviet annexation. But the SMP, created in the late 1950s, did not survive the collapse of USSR. Having lost all its credibility, it eventually went bankrupt in 1995. The “PerusSuomalaiset (True Finns) have replaced it with Timo Soini, one of the four founding members, as their leader.

Patriotic and Conservative

PS values are patriotic above all else: Finland first! This logically leads to their rejection of the European Union and their opposition to humanitarian immigration. Only foreigners with employment may settle in Finland.

The party is also opposed to same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and abortion – although it accepts contraception – and refuses female preachers, which is a big issue in this Lutheran country with a significant attachment to religion.

In spite of his conservatism, PS head Timo Soini denounces the racism some of his officials and supporters exhibit: “some PS party members are really all over the place! Timo Soini has to set boundaries to prevent more media scandals. He finds himself playing the part of a park watchman trying to keep kids’ playgrounds safe”, University of Turku sociologist Mari Toivanen analyses.

Traditional parties forced to distinguish themselves

The Finnish proportional election system has given PS members the opportunity to enter city councils. In the Eduskunta (the Finnish Parliament), it was not until the 2011 legislative elections that a large number of PS members arrived en masse with 39 MPs out of 200 and nearly 20% of the votes. A great deal of this success is due to the financial crisis which has given weight to slogans against Europe and against immigrants. “I think the arrival of PS on the Finnish political scene in 2011 clarified the debate. Before, it was difficult to distinguish between the main three parties – the conservative Kokoomus, the socialist SDP and centrist Keskusta – when it comes to the EU and immigration. We were all beating around the bush. After 2011, they have had to clarify their stance, especially regarding immigration.”

Hands off gender equality

In a country where gender equality is no laughing matter, the PS bill proposing to lower the age of retirement for women with children caused outrage in traditional parties. Young Centrist Party executive Kaja Asikainen said “not only is this project unbelievably old-school and paternalistic, it is also discriminatory and belittling to women’s bodies on several levels.”

The press and NGOs have also started to attack PS and defend immigrants. Finns are people who act and are suspicious of words and speeches. Rhetoric has a lesser impact there than it does in France. Some NGOs offer classes and accommodation for newly arrived immigrants.

The laughing stock of the media

Now the national press, especially the two evening newspapers Iltalehti and Iltasanomat, does not miss a single occasion to mock every blunder made by PS representatives. Jussi Halla-aho and Teuvo Hakkarainen, among other elected PS officials, are considered public entertainers.

Nevertheless the shockwave caused by the 2011 success in the Eduskunta is still going strong. “In Finnish society, the newly respectable image of the PS has stifled their supporters’ indignation towards xenophobia and everyday racism. After all, they can think ‘people in power think just like us!’ ” Mari Toivanen explains. This has become obvious in Lieska, over 500km from Helsinki.

FOCUS: Rampant apartheid in Lieksa

Traditionally, Lieksa and its province of Northern Karelia are populist strongholds. In the 2012 communal elections, 22.5% of the population voted for PS whereas the party’s national average had dropped below 10%. Due to the proportional system, 7 out of the 32 city councillors are from True Finns.

In parallel, Lieksa has experienced a rather massive influx of foreigners coming mostly from Somalia. This increasingly abandoned rural town offers downtown accommodation with some of the cheapest rents in Finland, which attracts people with low incomes.

The number of Somali and other African or Middle-Eastern immigrants, taking into account family reunification, has reached over 200 people in the past three years. In November 2013, the “Lieksa scandal” happened when PS refused to use the same room as Somalis on the pretext of issues of hygiene, disease transmission and contamination by parasites.

As if that was not enough, the city council PS group cancelled a decision to welcome nine Syrian orphans, claiming that more Syrians would follow. The local press sounded the alarm. One of PS’s blunderer-in-chief, Jussi Halla-aho, jumped at the opportunity to get to Lieksa and hold a sort of conference in front of foreigners who denounced his manipulative arguments: “Halla-aho claimed that our group received more benefits from Finnish organization than we actually do, and we have proved that” a Somali representative argues.

Jussi Halla-aho used this to cook up a storm on his political blog, which is the most widely read in Finland. He is in third place on PS’s electoral roll for the 2014 European elections and is likely to become elected, thus getting a chance to entertain politicians with his incongruous personality in the European Parliament.