June 19, 2017

A Finnish Government Crisis – Almost

Reuters/Scanpix
Finnish Minister of Finance National Coalition Party chairman Petteri Orpo (L), Finnish Prime Minister Centre Party chairman Juha Sipilä (C) and minister Sampo Terho from the New Alternative, attend a press conferance at the PM's official residence Kesäranta in Helsinki, Finland on June 13, 2017 where all parliament parties and their chairmen were summoned.
Finnish Minister of Finance National Coalition Party chairman Petteri Orpo (L), Finnish Prime Minister Centre Party chairman Juha Sipilä (C) and minister Sampo Terho from the New Alternative, attend a press conferance at the PM's official residence Kesäranta in Helsinki, Finland on June 13, 2017 where all parliament parties and their chairmen were summoned.

As a rule, following what happens in Finnish domestic politics amounts to watching paint dry.

But, all of a sudden, during the weekend of 9-12 June, there was electricity in the air: the government was about to fall, with twists and turns the authors of House of Cards could have been proud of.

It all started with the party congress of the Finns Party, one of the three partners in the current government, scheduled to choose its party chairman and three deputy chairmen on Saturday 10 June.

After apparently quite heated debates and with some confusion, not unheard of in huge party congresses of more than 3,000 party members, the result was clear but somewhat unexpected: the new chairman was to be Jussi Halla-aho, Member of the European Parliament known for his negative views on such central policy issues as the European Union, globalism and immigration.

Halla-aho had also been convicted of hate speech in a Finnish court for his disparaging comments about Islam and the Somalis. In what for many party members looked like an internal party coup, all three new deputy chairmen belonged to the same party faction with the same extreme views on these important political issues as their new party leader. Clearly, there was a shift in the party to the radical right.

On Monday 12 June, Prime Minister Juha Sipilä of the Centre Party and Finance Minister Petteri Orpo, who heads the National Coalition Party, announced that there is no common ground for cooperation with the Finns Party under its newly-elected party leadership.

The success of the hardline anti-immigrant Eurosceptic Halla-aho was not a huge surprise as such, but what the government partners could not stomach was that during its party congress the whole party leadership was changed and the Finns Party took a long step toward the extreme right. There was nothing undemocratic about it: the voting for the new party leader was all square and fair, with Halla-aho beating his rival with a clear margin of 56 percent of the vote, while the more moderate candidate Sampo Terho got only 33 percent.

The same can be said about the rest of the party leadership. The Halla-aho candidates clearly and democratically beat their opponents for the positions of the three deputy party chairmen. All this was happening, noted some party members who were participating in the voting, in an atmosphere reminiscent of a gathering of a religious cult, not a political party. The old party leadership was ambushed and caught totally with its pants down: the whole new party leadership consisted of the ultranationalist, anti-EU, anti-immigration, and anti-foreigner faction of the party.

This propelled Sipilä and Orpo into action. Sipilä, as prime minister, sounded out the opinions of the other parties in Parliament. Then they tweeted their common line to their own parliamentary groups: “Discussions held. Our joint proposal to Centre/National Coalition parliamentary groups: no grounds to continue cooperation with a Finns Party led by Halla-aho.”

From the sidelines, President Sauli Niinistö provided fire-support to Sipilä, saying that he hoped that the Centre and National Coalition parties would form a new government as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, in the background, discussions were going on between the government and two smaller parties, the Swedish People’s Party and the Christian Democrats. With their support, the government would have the majority of 101 seats in the 200-seat Parliament.

Then, on Tuesday 13 June, the Finns Party decided to split up into two groups, leaving the newly-elected hardline leaders in the cold. 20 parliamentarians, including the former party chairman Timo Soini and all other current Finns Party government ministers, formed a group they dubbed as the New Alternative. The Halla-aho group could count 17 members, with two others hesitating.

Dramatically, when this was happening, Prime Minister Sipilä was on his way, flying his own private jet plane to hand over his resignation letter to President Niinistö at the latter’s official summer residence at Kultaranta, next to the town of Naantali in western Finland. When being informed of the split, Sipilä just made a U-turn and flew back to Helsinki. And with this, a looming government crisis was averted – in Prime Minister’s words: “The government crisis has now been cancelled.”

At the time of writing, 20 parliamentarians of the Finns Party have left the Party and found their new political home in the New Alternative. That faction will stay in power, supporting the Sipilä government, while the Finns Party with its 15 members (the two members are still hesitating) will stay outside the government. The government now has the majority of 106 members out of 200 in Parliament.

For Finnish politics, these were truly dramatic days, but was the looming government crisis a real one, or was it all just carefully planned and well-choreographed political theatre? That remains to be seen, but it was clear when the drama unfolded that Halla-aho himself was caught off-guard by the impact of the internal party coup. Did he get too greedy, or should he have moderated the demands of the far right in his party? The final reckoning will be available at the national parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019.

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