Election Dramatic victory for a populist party in Finland

The Finnish Parliamentary elections of, which were held on April 17, resulted in a dramatic victory for a populist party, the True Finns, which increased its representation from 4 to 39 seats, and a big defeat for the Center Party of Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi. The leader of the National Coalition Party, which despite losing six seats, Finance Minister Jyrki Katainen is expected to form the new government.

Published on balticworlds.com on May 4, 2011

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The Finnish Parliamentary elections of, which were held on April 17, resulted in a dramatic victory for a populist party, the True Finns, which increased its representation from 4 to 39 seats, and a big defeat for the Center Party of Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi. The leader of the National Coalition Party, which despite losing six seats, Finance Minister Jyrki Katainen is expected to form the new government.

Despite its close ties to Scandinavia and the administrative and judicial heritage from half a millennium as part of the Swedish realm (up to 1809), Finnish domestic politics have in some respects deviated from patterns obtaining elsewhere in the North. Leaders of the Social Democratic party, which particularly in Sweden and Norway for a very long time dominated the political scene after a parliamentary system was adopted, certainly influenced by the Russian revolution, elected in 1918 to start an armed insurrection against the newly independent regime. The civil war of 1918 that ended with a victory for the right, left scars in Finnish society and undermined the legitimacyof the left that took a long time to overcome.

 The Winter War 1939-1940, the Continuation War 1941-1944 and the ensuing Cold War called for a policy of consensus and often broad coalitions. Finland was, with its long border with the Soviet Union, very exposed. The first thirty years after the war saw an intense rivalry between a resurrected Social Democratic Party and the Agrarians, its long- time and towering leader being Urho Kekkonen, president 1956-1981. The fairly strong Communist Party, called the Democratic Union for the People of Finland (DFFF) and a Social Democratic leftist splinter group basically supported the Agrarians, later called the Center Party. Only when Social Democrat Mauno Koivisto took office as President in 1982, did the parliamentary system take a firmer hold ofthe political scene. The basically conservative nature of Finnish society has been demonstrated by the now well established dominance of the right of the political spectrum, much more so than in Sweden and Norway, more like Denmark.

For the past thirty years three parties have been fairly equal in strength, the Social Democrats, the Center Party and the conservatives, called the National Coalition Party. The consensus practice has continued even after the conclusion of the Cold War, and as none of these parties in a succession of elections have reached much more than 25 percent of the vote, the need for a coalition between two of them, supported by two small parties, has always been there. The biggest party has either been the Social Democrats or the Center Party which has (with the exception of the conservative Holkeri government 1987-1991) shared the honors of leading the coalitions. In order to obtain a solid majority in the Riksdag of 200 seats, the coalitions have tried to include two, or in one case even three, small parties, so as not to allow any of them to exert pressure on the big parties. If one of the small parties started to make trouble, the government could thus always do without it. This is what political scientists have called an “overstrong” government. A permanent feature of the coalitions for a very long time has been the Swedish People´s Party (SFP), representing the Swedish-speaking minority (5-6  percent) in Finland. Their voters have on balance found it useful to try to protect minority rights inside the government rather than outside.

The elections of 2011 have brought two new features to the Finnish political scene. First the Coalition Party under its young leader (just 40), Finance Minister Jyrki Katainen, has for the first time ever,in spite of losing seats (with 20.4 per cent  44 seats, -6), emerged as the biggest party and will thus try to form a new coalition. But the other new feature that has attracted so much attention is the rise of a fourth large party, called the True Finns; the name is apparently not a good translation of the Finnish word “perus” which means “base”, a reference to the “normal” Finn rather than the “true” Finn. The True Finns, which in the old Riksdag only had four seats will now get 39 (19 percent of the vote) and has become the third largest party of the land, just behind the Coalition Party and the Social Democrats ( with 19.1 percent  42 seats, -3). Such a phenomenal increase in parliamentary representation from one election to the next is very unusual or even unique in democratic countries and thus constitutes a serious challenge for the Finnish political system, as it would for any political system.

Before trying to analyze the reasons for this dramatic change and what it would portend for  Finnish politics, it should also be noted that the fourth largest party, the Center Party, which with Mari Kiviniemi  as Prime Minister led the previous coalition, suffered its worst defeat ever, losing 16 seats (with 15.8 percent, 35 seats). Her party, which for so long – especially under the era of Urho Kekkonen – dominated the scene, will now retire to the back benches to lick its wounds. Will they ever regain their former strength, or has time finally caught up with the former Agrarian Party? The Center Party spent the years 1987-1991 and 1995-2003 in opposition but came back strongly to lead the government since 2003.

When one then looks more closely at the election results, the first question must be: how is it at all possible for any party to make such dramatic progress? All other parties, thus even the winner the Coalition Party, with the exception of the Swedish People´s Party (with 4.3 percent  9 seats, plus 1 from the autonomous Swedish-speaking Aaland Islands), lost seats in the Diet, which probably means that the True Finns have stolen votes from most quarters. The turnout was 70.4 percent  – a slight increase over the previous election in 2007 (69.8 percent) – which means that they might also marginally have gained from an increase of voters. Some analysts have, however, maintained that some of the people voting for the True Finns and its very charismatic leader, Timo Soini, are people who have not voted for a long time, then out of disappointment with what Finnish consensus politics has brought. That in turn means that, in spite of the unusually lively election campaign, others have stayed at home.

Though the True Finns originated in another populist movement, the Countryside Party which represented a split from the Center Party in 1959 and as the name suggests got most of its support from the countryside, this does apparently not apply to the True Finns. In the 1950´s one fourth of the Finns still lived off agriculture and forestry. It was no wonder that large scale emigration to the cities and Sweden (several hundred thousand moved to work in Swedish industry) fostered protests. Now, it seems that the True Finns have invaded the suburbs of Helsinki. In one such suburb, a third of the voters chose the True Finns, which goes to show that something more fundamental has happened in Finnish politics than was the case with its predecessor, the Countryside Party, which never got more than 18 seats.

It should also be noted that the True Finns,though they certainly have connections with nationalist circles such as and the Finnish Union, (Soumenuuden Liitto), they have no brown or neo-Fascist history as do the Sweden Democrats, which in the Swedish elections last year for the first time with 20 seats are represented in the Riksdag.  There was during the 1930´s and early 1940´s a pronazi party, IKL, with a similar background in nationalist circles (the so-called Lappo movement), even with a few seats in the Riksdag, but it is since long dead and buried and has had no serious following since.

So it seems that the True Finns is a homegrown populist party. It certainly has anti-immigration features, which may be explained by an increasing irritation with a still by European standards very small but rising immigrant population. The official melody is that the party has nothing against immigrants as long as they work once they are in Finland, and not bring their relations to live on welfare. But, of course, there are others supporting the party and even now members of the Riksdag who take a more stringent attitude on immigration.

The even more important element in the victory of the True Finns is a sort of leftist populism, a defense of the welfare state, a feeling that rapid change with the ensuing loss of industry jobs has left the poor and the old outside society. They claim that a fifth of the Finns live beneath the OECD poverty line, whereas some people have become very rich. Why should then Finland contribute to helping Greece, Ireland and Portugal off the hook? The Finns work hard and have managed to keep their economy in order when others have not. This gives rise to EU skepticism, which is a strong feature in the politics of the True Finns, echoed by similar attitudes in other parts of the political spectrum, i.e. the Social Democrats, and this in a country that has prided itself being a model member of the EU.

In this context, a critical view of the rights enjoyed by the minority Swedish-speaking Finns has its place in the True Finns agenda. Given its historical background and the presence of a Swedish-speaking minority, Finland is constitutionally a country with two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, which in practice means that Swedish is obligatory in school from seventh grade. For many Finns in parts of the country where there are no Swedish speakers – they live mostly along the coastline facing Sweden or in the south – or who have no Swedish relations or business contacts with Sweden, it is not easy to understand why one should be forced to study Swedish, a Germanic language with no relation to Finnish. Timo Soini, who obviously enjoys speaking Swedish himself, says he has nothing against Swedish, only to its being mandatory in school.

But the most fundamental reason for the success of the True Finns is in all likelihood that many experience that they lack influence over the political process. Almost 45 percent of the Finns state that they cannot not really influence political decisions, whereas in other Nordic countries the corresponding figure is around 25 percent.

So much for the background to the phenomenal rise of the True Finns. The task for the Finnish political establishment now is to form a new government. This task has thus fallen to the leader of the Coalition Party, which thus in spite of its losses has emerged as the largest party. Incidentally, no party in any election since the war has with so few seats has still become the largest one. Normally, the victor has had 50 or more seats of its own. It does not make the formation of a new government any easier. It is already quite clear that a new cabinet will probably consist of the Coalition Party, the Social Democrats and he True Finns. The leader of the Coalition Party has said he wants the Swedish People´s Party to join; whereas Timo Soini has pointed out the three largest parties have a solid majority of their own. A reason for giving the government a very good majority might be that one should rest assured that there will be defections from the True Finns before the next election in 2015; given the nature of the party that is almost inevitable.

The negotiations on the government program and the distribution of ministers will certainly both take time and be tough. The most difficult issue seem to be the attitude to the ailing EU member states, where the Coalition Party has taken a positive position when it comes to the European Financial Stability Facility, whereas the True Finns have demanded its being renegotiated and totally opposing assistance to Portugal. The Social Democrats are also rather skeptical about how this regime is going to be financed. Another very difficult issue will be taxes where the Coalition Party wants to lower income taxes but the True Finns and the Social Democrats oppose this policy, underlining he the demands of the welfare state.

Already, in preparation for the opening of the Riksdag, the parties have agreed to distribute the chairs of the standing committees of the Riksdag. The True Finns have captured Foreign Affairs, Defense and Home Affairs, which will surprise or even alarm many observers. Will they be equally successful in obtaining ministerial assignments? The strong inclination of the other major potential coalition parties to include the True Finns in a coming government gives that party a good bargaining position – to leave them outside a government could be even riskier.

A big question for Finland will be how Europe will look upon this coalition and how it would contribute to the image abroad when for the first time since Austria fifteen years ago a populist party is given a direct central role in any EU government; in Denmark and the Netherlands they are part of the parliamentary majority but not in the government. There is, however, a big and decisive differencebetween Austria then and Finland of to-day. Jörg Haider´s Freedom party was certainly a populist party but with a distinct neo-nazi, brown past, whereas the True Finns represents something partially new, populism of the center left with a clear anti-EU profile.

Whole country

Page updated 13.5.2011 at 9:09:04. Check counting is FINISHED.
Total voting turnout, % Voting turnout(%)in Finland
67,4 70,5


  Percentage Number of Votes Number of Seats
  % Change P-07 Change M-08   Change P-07 Change M-08   Change
Center Party of Finland 15,8 -7,3 -4,3 463266 -177162 -49934 35 -16
National Coalition Party 20,4 -1,9 -3,1 599138 -17703 -10 44 -6
Social Democratic Party of Finland 19,1 -2,3 -2,1 561558 -32636 +19436 42 -3
Left Alliance 8,1 -0,7 -0,7 239039 -5257 +14869 14 -3
Green League 7,3 -1,2 -1,6 213172 -21257 -15105 10 -5
Christian Democrats in Finland 4,0 -0,9 -0,2 118453 -16337 +11617 6 -1
Swedish People’s Party in Finland 4,3 -0,3 -0,4 125785 -735 +5559 9 0
True Finns 19,1 +15,0 +13,7 560075 +447819 +422317 39 +34
Communist Party of Finland 0,3 -0,4 -0,2 9232 -9045 -4754 0 0
Suomen Senioripuolue 0,1 -0,5 0,0 3195 -13520 +577 0 0
Communist Worker’s Party – For Peace and Socialism 0,1 0,0 +0,1 1575 -432 +510 0 0
Suomen Työväenpuolue STP 0,1 0,0 +0,1 1857 +93 +1154 0 0
Itsenäisyyspuolue 0,1 -0,1 0,0 3236 -2305 +1754 0 0
Köyhien Asialla 0,0 -0,1 0,0 1335 -1186 +276 0 0
Piraattipuolue 0,5 +0,5 +0,5 15103 +15103 +15103 0 0
Muutos 2011 0,3 +0,3 +0,3 7504 +7504 +7504 0 0
Vapauspuolue (VP) – Suomen tulevaisuus 0,1 +0,1 +0,1 4285 +4285 +4285 0 0
Others 0,4 -0,1 -2,0 11763 -825 -49906 1 0
In all       2939571        
Rejected votes 0,6     16294        
In all       2955865        
  • by Mats Bergquist

    PhD in political science. Chancellor of Växjö University and Chairman of the Board of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

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