Veikko Vennamo, born in 1913, was an intellectual politician, but also a brilliant political strategist.

Election Finnish version of populism

The Finnish version of populism is known in the vernacular as “Vennamoism,” after the colorful founder and long-time leader of the Finnish Rural Party, Veikko Vennamo. Although Finnish populism has been pronounced dead over and over again, it has always managed to rise again and reinvent itself. The high polling numbers of the True Finns in the lead-up to the forthcoming Finnish general election in April indicate that populism in Finland is once again making a comeback as a political force to reckon with.

Published on on March 31, 2011

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The return of populism is one of the most conspicuous political phenomena in contemporary liberal democracies. “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism” wrote Marx and Engels in the introduction to the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Well into the twentieth century, some would argue that populism, manifested in anti-establishment rhetoric, xenophobia, and leadership figures defined by the cult of personality and media, is the political phantasm of our day.

In parallel with deeper European integration and the democratic transformation in East and Central Europe, populism has solidified as a noteworthy political force. Populists – especially so-called right-wing populist parties – are represented in the European Parliament, in national and regional parliaments and in municipal assemblies. Populist parties have also participated in and cooperated with governments in countries including Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, Denmark and Finland.

Populism has a considerable Nordic presence. One of the strongest footholds of European populism is found in Finland, where it has had 50 years of uninterrupted presence in the political system and a history edged with electoral successes and governing responsibility as well as bankruptcies and scandals. Although Finnish populism has been pronounced dead over and over again, it has always managed to rise again and reinvent itself. The high polling numbers of the True Finns in the lead-up to the forthcoming Finnish general election in April indicate that populism in Finland is once again making a comeback as a political force to reckon with.

The Finnish version of populism is known in the vernacular as “Vennamoism,” after the colorful founder and long-time leader of the Finnish Rural Party, Veikko Vennamo. But are the True Finns then the same party as the former Rural Party? The “Finnish Family Farmers Association” was formed in 1959 and later changed its name to the Finnish Rural Party in 1966. The “True Finns” were formed shortly after the Rural Party went bankrupt in 1995. Despite the fact that Finnish populism has appeared under various party political umbrellas, it has been characterized by considerable ideological, issue political, organizational and personal continuity as the voter base was expanded. 

Veikko Vennamo’s legacy informs the True Finns. Party leader Timo Soini describes himself as a disciple of the prophet Vennamo in his autobiography “Maisterijätkä” [The kid with a master’s degree] and answers the rhetorical question of “Am I a Vennamoite?” with a simple “No doubt about it.” What then informs Finnish populism, or “Vennamoism,” and wherein lies its capacity to reinvent itself?

Finnish populism is rife with classic populist ideas in the form of rhetorical constructions of an idealized or homogeneous people with shared values and lifestyles. The anti-establishment position has been conspicuous in Finnish populist criticism of political, economic and academic elites, tacked onto the belief in democratic idealism with promises of popular power to marginalized groups in society. Other hallmarks of Finnish populism are distinctly populist stylistic elements in the form of colorful and charismatic party leaders, who have skillfully reflected populism in their demagogic language, lifestyles and values.

Discontent and protest

Populism is a highly charged concept associated with political opportunism, demagoguery and troublemaking.  An iconic image of the Finnish Rural Party is that of Veikko Vennamo in the 1970s being carried out of the parliamentary assembly when he refused to stop talking at the end of his allotted time. Anti-elitism and anti-establishmentarianism are at the historical core of Finnish populism. It is characterized by protest against and criticism of not only political powers but also the economic, cultural and academic elites that have distanced themselves from the values and lives of ordinary people. Vennamo coined terms like “Rötösherrat” or the Rotten Gentlemen – corrupt, wheeling and dealing politicians – and “Teoria-herrat,” the “Theoretical Gentlemen” isolated in their academic Ivory Towers with no sense of what is happening on the ground. The echo sounds again in the True Finns’ criticism of power cliques, political nepotism, corruption, the tyranny of experts and the all-powerful EU bureaucrats who have turned a deaf ear to the opinions and values of ordinary citizens. The Finnish political culture of consensus, whose downsides have in recent years been increasingly scrutinized in the public arena, and a weak and absent political opposition are the fertilizer that has fed the populist anti-establishment rhetoric. During the postwar era, all political parties with ambitions to govern were expected to fall in with the Paasikivi-Kekkonen line and uncritically protect the friendly relations with the Soviet Union and accept the use of foreign policy to achieve domestic policy ends. The Rural Party, later in concert with the Constitutionalists, criticized Urho Kekkonen’s autocratic stance and the parties’ uncritical support of Kekkonen in his personal ambitions to gain power. Vennamo’s sobriquet for the Republic of Finland was “Kekkoslovakia.”  During the dark ages of Finnish domestic policy in the 1970s, Kekkonen’s presidency was extended through an emergency powers act (1973) and in the next presidential election of 1978, he refused to debate other presidential candidates. The ascendancy of the True Finns can partly be related to a similar situation in the Finnish public debate climate surrounding the reform of the welfare state after the economic crisis of the 1990s and the nearly total support for the European project among all Finnish parties. The euro was an effective target in Timo Soini’s campaign prior to the 2009 elections to the European Parliament, when the True Finns garnered almost ten percent of the votes. Soini has successfully criticized the European bailout packages extended to Greece and Ireland in the wake of the financial crisis. Finnish populism’s recipe for success has consisted of narratives about political conspiracies among colluding establishments dancing a tango out of tune with the citizenry.

The people’s voice and rescuer

“The people know” (“Kansa tietää”) is another of Vennamo’s cogent expressions still current in Finnish political rhetoric. The quotation captures populism’s central emphasis on the people as both the democratic unit where power should be vested and as the idealization of the ordinary, honest, and hardworking person or the savvy and skills of “the man (sometimes the woman) on the street”. Populism offers no political ideology that explains social conditions or presents coherent visions for society. Instead, it gives voice to its supporters’ experiences and confirms their worldviews. In his 1987 master’s degree thesis, Populismi – politiikka ja poltinmerkki SMPn roolinmuutor [Populism – politics and brand, the new role of the Finnish Rural Party], Timo Soini writes that “populism tells the public what it wants to hear.” Unlike other political ideologies, populism has no pretensions to enlightenment or ambition to educate its voters: the democratic ethos is to reflect the people and in so doing become the voice of the people.

Even as populism idealizes “ordinary” people, its progress depends on advancing the image of these people as under siege and in need of rescue. Populism presents itself as a cry for help by a “forgotten people” (forgotten by politicians) or people who have been lost along the way to social transformation. Populism, and especially its leaders, are the people’s friend in need: Soini has described Vennamo as “the forgotten people’s Batman, perceived by his supporters as utterly fair and honorable” and on another occasion as “Moses, leading his forgotten people back to their lost land.” This is also something that informs Soini’s image of his own mission.

What, then, is this “lost land” of Finnish populism or, as it is called in Finnish, “satumaa” (“storyland”) according to the lyrics of a popular Finnish tango? There is a difference between the Rural Party and the lost paradise of the True Finns. The forgotten people were the rural population affected by the rapid urbanization and modernization of Finland in the 1960s. The countryside was emptied, family farming became less and less profitable, and the traditional norms and values rooted in agrarian society were challenged by radical (leftist) ideologies and individualism. Veikko Vennamo made himself the spokesman for this threatened population, its livelihood and values, and idealized its members as representatives of the authentic, hardworking and honest Finland. Associations to the “lost Finland” had particular resonance among the Karelian refugee population, among whom there was widespread support for Vennamo. As a civil servant in the Ministry of Agriculture, Vennamo managed the settlement of the 400,000 Karelian refugees, which would serve him well in his later political career, which began in the Agrarian League. The Agrarian Party, later the Center Party, was the party of government in Finland starting in the 1950s. Even though the party’s stance was farmer-friendly, there was widespread discontent among the farming population. The Communist Party was an appealing choice for family farmers in northern Finland, who were drawn to so-called “backwoods communism.” Vennamo mobilized family farmers who were agitating for public subsidies for rural survival, but were vehemently anti-communist and could not embrace radical leftist ideas either politically or in terms of values. The Rural Party defended traditional conservative and Christian values, which is also the case today for the True Finns. The rural base survives among the True Finns, but in the contemporary rhetoric, the inhabitants of suburban environments are also being painted as a new forgotten people. The successes of the True Finns in opinion polls can be explained by this broadening of the voter base. Supporters of the True Finns, like many other European populist parties, are largely male and women make up only 25 percent of party sympathizers.

Under the True Finns, the threatened people have also been redefined and reconstructed primarily as the Finnish-speaking people, who are contrasted especially against immigrants and Swedish-speaking Finns. The True Finns have become more aligned with other successful European right-wing populist parties and represent immigration as not only a threat to jobs and social welfare, but also to Finnish culture and traditions. There is tension within the True Finns party between welfare chauvinism and cultural nationalism: Finnish people should have first dibs on both jobs and social benefits. Soini and the older groups that came out of the old Rural Party tend to talk about immigration as a threat to Finnish jobs and welfare, while other, more radical groups – including their most extreme representative, Jussi Halla Aho, docent in sociology at the University of Helsinki – argue that immigration, especially Muslim immigration, is a threat to Finnish culture. Halla-Aho was convicted of a hate crime after saying publicly that there is a connection between Islam and pedophilia.

Finnish culture, defined in terms of the values of uprightness and honesty, Christian values and western cultural tradition, is juxtaposed with multiculturalism and Islam in particular. In the run-up to the election, the True Finns have presented a cultural policy platform with a Finnish art canon and have opposed public funding of “postmodern” artistic expression. “Maassa maan tavalla” or “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” is one of the True Finns’ political slogans, which has also been used by Jutta Urpilainen, leader of the Social Democratic Party. Immigration should be restrictive and those who choose to come to Finland should assimilate with Finnish culture.

Finnishness has a different, stronger emphasis among the True Finns than it had in the Rural Party. This is obvious in the party’s relationship to Swedish-speaking Finns and Finno-Swedishness. Vennamo’s rhetoric represented Swedish-speaking Finns as a master race – a political, economic, and cultural elite. He fomented an ambivalent relationship to Finno-Swedishness and understood that while there was theoretically a breeding ground for populism among the anti-communist family farmers in Österbotten, their linguistic identification overshadowed everything else. There was also smoldering resentment among some Rural Party supporters against Swedish-speaking regions of Finland that had resisted taking in Karelians when refugees were pouring in from the east during the war. Under the True Finns, Finno-Swedishness was constructed as a foreign element in relation to the Finnish majority culture. The Swedish-speaking minority is favored at the expense of the Finnish-speaking population: compulsory Swedish instruction at school, weighted study places for Swedish-speaking Finns in areas where service in Swedish is necessary, obligatory language requirements for civil servants, etc. The True Finns’ demands for a national language and desire for a monolingual Finland is cultural assimilation disguised as ambitions to achieve equality or efficiency. The True Finns foment and cultivate nostalgic reactionaryism based on a revisionist history of a Finland that never was, a land where Finnishness was dominant and unchallenged and Swedishness represented Swedish colonial rule.

Charismatic and demagogic leaders

Populism in Finland has been distinguished by charismatic, colorful leading figures and political parties caught up in the cult of personality. It is thus significant that Finnish populism is called “Vennamoism,” since its roots are so intimately entwined with the first party leader, Veikko Vennamo. The successes of the True Finns are also dependent on its leading figure, Timo Soini. Populist leadership is characterized by a number of internal antagonisms. The populist leader’s authority and legitimacy are related to his (purported) ability to understand and represent “ordinary people” or “the silent majority,” unlike other politicians, who serve group interests or only themselves. This can be expressed in political statements and communication styles, or in a closeness reflected in lifestyle and social and cultural habits. Paradoxically, populist leaders represent themselves as ordinary, everyday people with extraordinary qualities.

Veikko Vennamo, born in 1913 on the shores of Lake Ladoga, was a contradictory person on many levels. He was born to a wealthy and educated family, went to law school, and was a keenly interested follower of international debate. In her biography of her father, “Lähikuvassa Veikko Vennamo” [An intimate portrait of Veikko Vennamo] , Vennamo’s daughter Meri Vennamo relates how their home was filled with publications like Stockholms-Tidningen, Dagens Nyheter, the New York Times, and Neuer Zuricher Zeitung, which tumbled through the letterbox one after the other. Vennamo was an intellectual politician, but also a brilliant political strategist. Despite his rich and varied vocabulary, he employed a “popular” political rhetoric, in the sense that he spoke in short, simple sentences. His speech was deliberately earthy and folksy, colored by Karelian sayings and traditions, working class rhetoric, and metaphors of religious revivalism. His acid statements engendered bad blood among those he attacked and enthusiasm among his supporters. They also worked very well in the new medium of television in the 1960s. Vennamo said about himself, “I deliberately took on the role of the clown and the demagogue, because I had to. There was no other way. I will have to suffer for this to my grave, because I will never shed that label.” Timo Soini, Vennamo’s hand-picked party secretary for the Rural Party, has followed in his master’s footsteps and uses simple, pithy language. Vennamo’s personality was charming and funny, but also authoritarian and obstinate, in both public and private life. Soini appears as a more good-natured sort. He refers to himself in his autobiography as “maisterisjätkä,” which can be roughly translated as “the farm boy with a master’s degree” or “the kid with a master’s degree.” Soini likes harness racing, English football, and Finnish pop music, and enjoys knocking back a beer now and then. About his degree in political science, completed with a master’s thesis on populism, he says that he “is a better practitioner than theorist of populism.” Soini is a devout Catholic who disavows homosexuality, abortion, and premarital sex, but who “doesn’t care what the neighbors do, even though he dislikes it.” He makes a point of his unpolished appearance and ill-fitting suits, and claims that, unlike other politicians, he does not use stylists and consultants. Like Vennamo, he is extremely telegenic and a popular guest on TV talk shows. In Timo Soini, Vennamo saw himself: a political animal with a strategic mindset able to use his folksy image and personality to gain widespread voter confidence. This does not conflict with their representation of a political conviction and a political pathos. Finnish populism is a political counterweight in the Finnish political culture of consensus, expressed in parliamentary coalitions, diverse governing administrations, and – in the past – multipartisan consensus on “exigent” decisions of foreign policy or economic policy. The weakening of political ideologies and the lack of political alternatives is no longer an exclusively Finnish phenomenon, but a pan-European trend in the shadow of globalization and Europeanization. There is still an obvious place for Veikko Vennamo’s “rotten gentlemen” and “forgotten people” in contemporary politics. And not only in Finland.

Suggestions for further reading:

Soini, Timo Juhani, 1987, “Populismi – Politiikkaa ja Poltonmerkki: SMP:n Roolinmuutos. [Populism – politics and brand, the new role of the Finnish Rural Party]. Master’s thesis in political science, University of Helsinki.

Soini, Timo, 2008, Maisterisjätkä, Tammi, Helsinki.

Vennamo, Meri, 2009, Lähikuvassa Veikko Vennamo, Otava, Helsinki.

  • Toimisto

    In Finland the political and economic elite controls the media. No one can criticize the elite in the mainstream media. Any one who criticizes leading politicians elsewhere, having state or municipal employer, will lose his or her job.

    The Social Democratic Party of Finland has created the cult of personality which surrounds Finnish President Tarja Halonen and her predecessor Martti Ahtisaari. The Finnish elite has declared November 16th as the Martti Ahtisaari Day since 2011.

    The Finnish government holds back information from their citizens what Martti Ahtisaari is doing against their interest.

    Censorship in the mainstream media makes Finland a dictatorship, ruled by the political and economic elite.

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