Election Challenges await the True Finns
The Finnish voters were called to the ballot boxes for the third time in little more than a year on Sunday, October 28th. It was the local elections’ turn. The question on everybody’s minds was whether the True Finns would reprise their success in the parliamentary election.
Published on balticworlds.com on november 10, 2012
Finnish voters have been called to the ballot boxes three times since April 2011. The populist True Finns achieved success among voters and made inroads into the Finnish party system formerly dominated by the Center, Social Democratic, and Coalition parties. The True Finns trebled their voter support and chose to join the opposition to avoid having to take responsibility for a decision on Finland’s contribution to the European bailout, which the party had strongly criticized during the election campaign.
The second electoral round was the presidential election in January, a contest between the green, homosexual internationalist Pekka Haavisto and the conservative, business-friendly former minister of finance, Sauli Niinistö. The latter was elected in the end, but the popular support and spontaneous activities that arose in connection with Haavisto’s candidacy were unique in the history of Finnish politics.
In the wake of these two unusual elections with their profound implications for the Finnish political system, it was the local elections’ turn on Sunday, October 28th. The question on everybody’s minds was whether the True Finns would reprise their success in the parliamentary election.
The couch potatoes were the biggest party in the local elections. Voter turnout was only 58.2 percent, more than 20 percent below the turnout in the parliamentary and presidential elections. Voting activity is generally lower in local elections, but voter turnout still remained above 70 percent until 1992. Various explanations have been offered: election fatigue; the technical nature of the main issues in local elections; confusion as the parties jostled for position in the center; the consensus politics of local government. There are certainly seeds of truth in all of this. But much of the blame must be put on the government for choosing not to roll out the long-planned and much-discussed municipal reforms that would have redrawn the map of Finnish local government. Nor did the government provide any clarity about planned reforms to the health care system. This pulled the rug out from under any opportunity for genuine debate about the future responsibilities of local government. Many municipalities are in economic distress; under the additional pressure of the global financial crisis there is limited scope for political action in the municipalities, which have been implementing cutbacks and austerity programs for many years.
Efficiency improvements in the form of larger units (municipal amalgamations and integrations of health care districts, primary care medical centers, and schools) and the use of private providers to deliver municipal health care services – privatization – were the hot-button issues in the election. The issues were linked with two of the historically most important conflict dimensions in Finnish politics: privatization and the scope of public responsibility in various social areas divided the parties along the economic right to left scale. Opinions on the need for municipal amalgamations and centralization were split essentially along the urban/rural cleavage or the “central/peripheral” dimension.
All parties other than the True Finns received fewer votes than in the previous local elections of 2008. The Coalition Party became the largest with 21.9 percent of the votes, followed by the Social Democrats (19.6), and the Center Party (18.7). The Center Party increased its support by three percentage points from the parliamentary election and showed that the former governing party could come back after its thrashing in the parliamentary election. The Center’s defensive victory was due in part to that one of the party’s core issues – the distribution of resources between urban and rural regions – was one of the main issues of the elections. The low-key image of the new party chairman, Juha Sipilä, also found favor among voters. Although all the parties managed to declare themselves the winners in one way or another, they all lost ground as the True Finns advanced in local government.
The True Finns did not reach the heights attained in the parliamentary election, but they more than doubled their voter support compared to the 2008 local elections. Of the smaller parties, the Green League garnered 8.5 percent, the Left Alliance 8 percent, the Swedish People’s Party 4.7 percent, and the Christian Democrats 3.7 percent.
On election night, the media vied with each other to come up with the most subtle, by definition, characterizations of electoral support for the True Finns in the local elections. The election result of 12.7 percent was lower than opinion polls had indicated and fell short of the party’s performance in the parliamentary election, but was nevertheless more than double the party’s outcome in the local government elections of 2008. So, was it a partial success or an amazing semi-landslide when the True Finns increased their seats in municipal council assemblies from 443 to more than 1,200? The answer depends on which expectations and points of comparison are set. The “partial” success in the local election means the True Finns have greater opportunities to influence local government decisions. From having had a few isolated seats on municipal councils and certain municipal boards to the current situation, with a much higher number of municipal councilors, board seats, and perhaps representation on municipal executive committees, the True Finns are going to be a considerably stronger presence in many governing bodies in Finland. If the party can also act as the swing vote, its influence may be greater than the sum of its seats.
The election result might also be considered surprisingly high since the True Finns’ banner issue – criticism of the EU – had seemingly no direct bearing on the two dominant subjects of the local elections, the municipal and health care reforms. The party linked the theme of opposition to the EU and Finnish immigration policy, already successful in the parliamentary election, to the local political arena. Like other Nordic populist parties, with the exception of the Norwegian Progress Party, the True Finns are advocates of the welfare state and the party has historically been informed by a philosophy of social equality. In a situation where the level of local government service is bowing under the weight of shaky finances, an aging population, and accelerating youth unemployment, the party has called for improvements and reprioritizations. A welfare-chauvinist argument that “our own people” (read: Finnish) and the “especially” needy (children and the elderly) should have preferential access to the services provided by the welfare state is voiced throughout the party and is not isolated to extremist factions. Why should Finland help failing European economies and take in immigrants and refugees when local governments lack the resources to manage health care, child care, and elderly care for their own people? The True Finns have also criticized proposals calling for increased private provision of welfare services, which they say will result not only in poorer service but also promote more widespread use of (cheaper) foreign labor. In line with their traditional views on decentralization, the True Finns have been critical of the proposed municipal reforms, but have not entirely precluded agreements through a get-out clause stipulating that the reforms must be voluntary. The party has to one extent or another managed to dust off the old anti-establishment rhetoric and criticized the closed and non-transparent decision process, as well as municipal executives who have appropriated public funds for private use.
The electoral successes of the True Finns are not solely a product of the party’s politics but perhaps primarily of an increasingly effective and hitherto underestimated party organization. The party’s voter support has usually been ascribed to party chairman Timo Soini’s charismatic and jovial personality. Pundits have gone so far as to question whether the party would survive without its colorful party boss. The local elections have shown beyond doubt that the party is more than its chairman. The True Finns have stabilized in terms of voters and as a party organization. The party leadership has built up an increasingly effective organization with broad coverage across the country. Voter support has increased steadily since the last local election in 2008, except in the latest local elections. The party has seen an influx of members, local party chapters have been formed, and the voters who voted for the party in several consecutive elections have increased in number. In short, the party has a more stable organizational structure and voter base, even though as a new “major” party it probably has more “unbelievers” and fewer true loyalists than other parties. From this perspective, the outcome of the local election was a disappointment, as the party did not manage to mobilize its base as vigorously as it did in the last parliamentary election.
The True Finns would not have done as well in the local election if the party organization had not successfully nominated candidates in a large number of municipalities: the party more than doubled the number of candidates in this election (4,394 to be precise, compared to 1,840 in 2008). Like other parties, the True Finns strived for diversity in the candidate lists in terms of age, sex, education, and profession. The True Finns are still having a hard time attracting women candidates and can still be characterized as the strongest men’s movement in Finland. Only 23 percent of their candidates were women and an equally low number were elected. True Finns candidates have less education than the average, but the age distribution among the candidates was even. The party had also attracted defectors from other political parties, most famously Toini Kankaanniemi, former chairman of the Christian Democratic Party, who contributed to making the True Finns the biggest political party in his home municipality of Uurainen.
The political scandals among True Finns MPs, along with media and public scrutiny of the candidates’ backgrounds and expressed opinions (on www.kunnollisvaalit.fi for example) have made the party leadership somewhat more cautious. Every candidate is asked to provide a written account of his or her background. Unlike other parties, where membership applications are handled by local party organizations, applications to join the True Finns are subject to central approval by the party board of directors. This practice was implemented in response to negative experiences in the Rural Party era and is also applied by the Danish People’s Party in a bid for central control over who is allowed into the party. Despite pronouncements about stricter control, several candidates have been caught making statements that are, according to party leadership, inconsistent with the party’s position. As a rule, they have nonetheless been allowed to remain on the ballot and in some cases were vote magnets. One example is one of the candidates, who ran for election in Kotka. He wrote on his Facebook page that Muslims should be boiled alive and that assassinating the prime minister would be an act of patriotism. He received the third-highest number of votes among the True Finns candidates and won a seat on the municipal council. This is not the only example of the party speaking with a forked tongue. The reluctance to act is partly based on that more extremist candidates deliver votes to the party and partly on fear of internal party schisms. The question is how will the continued acceptance of extremist candidates affect the party’s long-term credibility and appeal to voters and other political parties?
The stronger presence in municipal governing bodies is an unequivocal success and should not be underestimated. The future of the True Finns however will depend on how this position of power is managed. The host of new, heterogeneous, untried, and politically inexperienced municipal councilors may turn out to be the party’s Achilles’ heel. In his speech to the base at the party’s election night gathering, Timo Soini expressed some concern about his role as the party chairman: “I have the privilege of leading the most interesting, and the most difficult, party in Finland. Let me tell you, it is not always easy.”
Several challenges are ahead for the party. The first is whether the new and often inexperienced True Finns taking their seats on municipal councils will be capable of effective, united, and disciplined action. This is a prerequisite for being an appealing partner and having opportunities to influence policy. In some municipalities where the True Finns have been represented, it has proved that the party has often split its votes. In addition, most of the new councilors in most municipalities are political novices, which will impact their conditions for working effectively in municipal assemblies. The capacity to act collectively and maintain discipline at the local level will determine the party’s future credibility. When the Sweden Democrats broke through at the local government level and new, inexperienced councilors trooped into the rooms of municipal governance, they proved to be passive and there has been significant defection from the party. One important difference between the True Finns and the Sweden Democrats however is that the other political parties see no barriers to cooperating with the True Finns, while the Sweden Democrats were isolated and thus given no opportunity to influence policy
The second challenge is that the balance of power within the party may have been shifted by the local elections. The True Finns are a cohesive party in which various factions emphasize the party’s defining issues – social and regional fairness, values conservatism, popular sovereignty, and nationalism – to varying degrees. This is particularly true of the party’s anti-immigration and nationalist faction, whose roots are in Finnish nationalist circles (like the Finnish Sisu) and online communities (such as the Hommafoorum, roughly “the job forum”). Towards the end of the 2000s, certain parts of this movement wanted to influence political decision-making and had to decide whether to form their own party or affiliate with an existing party. They chose the latter option and the True Finns, whose success to that point had been modest, welcomed them with open arms. In this way, the strongly anti-immigration and in some cases outright Islamophobic factions gained a borrowed legitimacy, which would probably not have been the case had they formed their own party. There is much to indicate that they have gradually strengthened their presence in the True Finns. The new editor-in-chief of the party magazine Perussuomalainen, Matias Turkkila, founded Hommafoorum, is a former member of Finnish Sisu, and has been Jussi Halla-aho’s campaign manager. The change in editorship has already had an effect on the contents of the magazine. In Sunday’s elections, the leading figure of the strongly xenophobic faction, Jussi Halla-aho, received more personal votes in Helsinki than party chairman Timo Soini in Esbo. Naturally, there are interdependencies among the various factions of the party, but the volume of conflict, muted until now, may be cranked up.
Last but not least, what impact will political accountability for municipal policy decisions have on the True Finns? One widespread belief is that populist protest parties lose votes when they shoulder responsibility for difficult political decisions. The True Finns have declared that they are ready to take responsibility and cooperate with other political parties in the municipalities. Even though the True Finns have an image as an anti-establishment party of discontent, some of their voters were disappointed that the party chose to join the opposition after the parliamentary election of 2011. Voters usually want to vote for political parties that can influence policy and there is an expectation that the True Finns can deliver political change. The impact of accountability will depend on the extent to which the party gains a hearing for its core issues. In light of the tough economic positions of the municipalities and the depressing global economy, it is difficult to see any scope for revolutionary social welfare improvements. The True Finns are in danger of disappointing their base.