June 25, 2019

What Really Happened in the Finnish Elections?

The winners of the Finnish elections: Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho (left) and the leader of the SDP, Antti Rinne.
The winners of the Finnish elections: Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho (left) and the leader of the SDP, Antti Rinne.

The seed of defeat for Juha Sipilä’s party was sown at the start of the government’s term.

One of the basics of political realism is that countries do not have friends and voters do not feel gratitude. For those to whom the doctrine of realism is unfamiliar, these principles always come as an unpleasant surprise and are considered unfair.

It is not clear whether the outcome of the Finnish parliamentary elections in April was a surprise to prime minister Juha Sipilä, but it did apparently seem unfair.

During his tenure, the Finnish economy returned to growth after ten years of stagnation, the growth in government debt abated and the employment rate rose above 72%, which had previously been considered “completely unrealistic” by economic experts.

The election result was the most severe defeat ever for the Centre Party (Keskusta) Sipilä led. The defeat had to be accepted on all fronts, but Kainuu County was at the heart of the debacle. The government spent a billion euros to revive mining and economic life in this region, and unemployment fell by half. But in the elections, the Centre Party lost all its seats there.

Juha Sipilä Was Once Really Popular

When the Soviet Union broke up, a field of research emerged to try to find the reasons for this process and to show the exact moment the disintegration began. The same has happened in Finland: attempts have been made to find the reasons for the Centre Party’s big electoral defeat, and the correspondingly excellent result for the Finns Party.

After two elections this spring, few people in Finland remember how popular politician Juha Sipilä was four years ago and how well over 40% of voters considered him the most suitable person for the prime minister’s chair. This showed he also enjoyed widespread popularity outside his own party.

When Antti Rinne, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), put together a government in the spring, he couldn’t even dream of such high personal support. According to the polls, the chairman of the Green League, Pekka Haavisto, would have been the most popular prime minister, with 22% of voters supporting him. Petteri Orpo, chair of the National Coalition Party (NCP, or Kokoomus) was in second place. As prime minister, Rinne was supported by 15% of the electorate and Sipilä by only 14%. So it is understandable why Sipilä announced he would step down from the position of chairman of his party at an extraordinary convention of the party in September 2019.

Events of Summer 2017

When one looks for the starting point of developments that led to the Centre Party’s election defeat, it almost always leads to the events of early June 2017. The leader of the Finns Party—the second-largest party in the government—party founder and long-standing chairman, foreign minister Timo Soini, announced in March 2017 that he would step down. In a hotly contested leadership election held in Jyväskylä, Jussi Halla-aho, a representative of radical right-wing populism, came to power.

The other parties in the governing coalition, the Centre Party and the NCP, made it clear that they did not intend to continue working with Halla-aho’s group due to the different values they held. This was followed by a government crisis, which the political elite of the country watched with bated breath. The prime minister announced that he would seek the president’s permission for the government to resign. However, while he was on his way to Kultaranta, the summer residence of president Sauli Niinistö, in his private plane, Sipilä turned to the flight back to Helsinki when it emerged that the Finns Party group in parliament was falling apart and the majority would be willing to continue cooperating in government on the same basis as before. The government still had a majority in parliament.

New Configuration and its Effects

Twenty members of the Finns Party left the parliamentary group and 15 remained. There was a new political configuration with three features, each with its own impact on what happened later. The first and most direct impact was that support for the Finns Party fell. According to opinion polls, it had been falling almost throughout the term, but now it seemed inevitable that a group of 15 Halla-aho parliamentarians would be cast to the political periphery.

Another feature was that the 20-member faction that had separated from the Finns Party and become known as Blue Reform could hold onto the party’s five ministerial portfolios. Thus, they had the same number of ministers as the NCP. This began to strain the credibility of the government, as it became clear over time that support for Blue Reform among the electorate did not rise above a couple of percent. When the government resigned only a month before the elections, accusations began to fly again in an ugly political game.

However, the third factor had the most decisive influence. At the time the Sipilä government was formed, there was a law under which a person leaving the governing parliamentary group takes the support from the treasury with him/her if more than half of the members of the faction leave. The law was drafted in the 1970s to mitigate the disintegration of the Finnish Rural Party (SMP) group led by Veikko Vennamo.

Soini Funded His Own Downfall

For the Finns Party, the abolition of this law was an unconditional expectation of going into government, and for Timo Soini it meant restoring his honour as a spiritual father figure. By the summer of 2017, the law had been revoked. This meant that each year the 15-strong Halla-aho group received treasury support for 35 members, while Blue Reform did not receive a penny. Because the previous government’s scandal over election funding had dried up other sources of funds for parties, the Finns Party’s financial advantage was remarkable—and they used it effectively.

Even though the Finns Party managed to avoid the political offside booking reserved for them due to strong funding and to compensate for their otherwise poor visibility, June 2017 was not to be a decisive turning point. Attempts to prove that prime minister Sipilä had a significant hand in engineering the collapse of a group of Finns Party members did not prove credible. None of the solutions made at the time would have made the Centre Party’s electoral losses unavoidable.

The Trade Unions Save the Social Democrats

There has been much discussion about the significance of the exciting arguments between the government and the trade union movement. On two occasions, these led to large anti-government protests: first in drawing up a competition agreement that reduced wages and holiday pay and then in connection with the adoption of the so-called active model of unemployment protection.

These disputes certainly contributed to strengthening the ranks of the left, as reflected in the increased support for left-wing parties in opinion polls. But this rise did not come at the expense of the Centre Party, and Halla-aho’s Finns Party did not benefit much from it either. If the real goal of the trade unions was to raise the party to the highest position again by means of arguments with the SDP, they succeeded—but this does not explain the results of the Centre Party or the Finns Party.

The Seeds of Defeat Were Sown at the Very Start

For the Centre Party, the seed of its defeat was sown the moment Sipilä announced that, in addition to the Centre Party and the Finns Party, the third party in government would be the NCP rather than the SDP. Southern Finland’s mainstream media never forgave Sipilä for this. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that, at the request of Timo Soini, the Swedish People’s Party was also excluded from the government.

It was clear from the very beginning that a powerful force would be up against the government. Those on the left, greens and Swedish-speaking liberals living in metropolitan areas and the big cities felt the “bourgeois government” had been formed based on business and capital owners, who were blamed for all that was bad and were responsible for nothing that had gone well. The government’s weaknesses were amplified, and good goals were interpreted as unrealistic or undisguised propaganda.

The Problems Were Never Understood

The label imposed on the government was not a problem for the NCP, which eventually left the government with its feet dry and its credentials intact. In the Finns Party, the government’s policy and bad public image caused controversy. Its old supporters, Vennamo’s “forgotten people”, considered that the government’s actions hurt the poor. However, in the eyes of the new supporters of Halla-aho, the government’s line did not sufficiently reflect “conservative values”. Both wings were disappointed. Eventually, the five ministers from Blue Reform and 20 legislators ended up defending government policy, but none of them would be re-elected.

The government never understood who, where or what the real problem was. At the top of the Centre Party, some mission-oriented fanaticism seemed to have an impact; they began to rush decisively towards the goals set, without looking around and listening to complaints from others.

The reason was not a powerful opponent, but an inability to make and implement decisions. The situation should have been assessed rationally and targeted strategic communication used, but neither option existed.

Harkimo’s and Väyrynen’s Tools of Destruction

The significance of the media, which had been hostile towards the Centre Party and the Sipilä government in explaining the election results, continued until the final days of the government. When NCP member Hjallis Harkimo, dreaming of a ministerial position, left the party and set up a new movement with the former secretary of the SDP, Mikael Jungner, just a few months before the elections, he received such a positive response from the public that it secured his re-election.

The post-election assessments showed that if the NCP had received even some of the votes of Harkimo’s movement it would have become the largest party and provided the prime minister. Due to its popularity in the media, Harkimo threw the NCP out of the government, and Jungner appointed Antti Rinne of the SDP as prime minister.

Despite sincere efforts, attempts to keep alive the political career of former Centre Party chairman Paavo Väyrynen failed. Väyrynen’s own movements proved to be so distinctive and unreliable that they no longer had the expected effect of breaking up the Centre Party.

Undeniable Achievements

It is characteristic of the Finnish political system that there are always things that will be resolved despite all the political contradictions. That was also the case this time. For example, Sipilä’s government was better able to cope with legislation promoting national security than any other government since the end of the Cold War. Civil and military laws are the best-known reforms, but not the only ones.

In fact, the laws related to national security were born under the leadership of president Sauli Niinistö and under his own people’s auspices, not as a result of the government’s ingenuity. Neither the government nor the opposition parties received credit for these reforms.

In reality, no party leader made a significant public statement on foreign and security policy over the past four years, when presidential elections were also held. The only minor exception was Jussi Halla-aho, who, in the examination of party leaders, answered the question who or what threatens Finland with one word: Russia.

Members of the Finns Party Were Very Happy

If the seeds of the Centre Party’s election defeat were sown right at the start of the government’s term, the Finns Party found the keys to their election success by stealth and, partly, by chance.

The Finns Party’s traditional charger was simply its long-standing opposition to the European Union. After Timo Soini demanded the foreign minister’s portfolio and kept Finland’s relations with Brussels unchanged, the party’s rhetoric against the EU was exposed as no more than empty words. Over time, the more it tried to criticise Brussels, the more positive people’s attitude to the EU became. The latest Eurobarometer survey shows this clearly.

The migration crisis of 2015 was a gift from heaven for the Finns Party, especially the Halla-aho wing, and it is this that explains the party’s election victory. The crisis took the authorities by surprise, and their actions seemed completely chaotic at first. Originally known as the party against the EU, it changed its appearance, now showing itself to be anti-immigrant, especially anti-Islam; it was now easy for the racists to blend in, too.

However, the migration crisis alone does not explain the election result. By the summer of 2017, the crisis was well under control, and although, for example, the Russian media kept the issue visible all the time, it was moving at high speed in the margins of the political debate in Finland. In the following months, the support of the party led by Halla-aho did not even get close to the numbers it finally reached in the elections.

Climate Discussions Increase the Popularity of the Finns Party

The media then discovered that climate talks were under way. The starting point was the report published in October 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which called for greater greenhouse gas reductions at a faster pace than before. The traditional parties quickly realised that the extensive national and international debate on the subject could fall straight into the laps of the Greens. They decided to stop it at any cost.

Except for the Finns Party. Once again, the party made a good strategic decision. This was different from that of the climate front formed by other parties and labelled the required measures as an “environmental millstone”, which would be expensive for Finland, would be painful for ordinary consumers and make it impossible to live on the periphery. The occasional exaggerations of climate activists in the public debate became a blessing for the Finns Party. And things happened as expected: the debate was polarised, and support for the Finns Party began to rise, with that of the opposition party, the Green League. However, support grew slowly; in December 2018, the Finns Party had only 8–9%.

Chance Intervenes

The Oulu police then intervened. On 1 December, the police published a short statement that they had begun a criminal investigation into the serious sexual abuse of a child and the rape of a child, involving several people with foreign backgrounds as suspects.

The police released a further notice about a month later, stating that they had begun a criminal investigation into four new suspects over sexual offences involving girls under the age of 15. The suspected crimes were rape, serious sexual exploitation of a child and sexual exploitation of a child. It was stated that the police had arrested three men with foreign backgrounds who had reason to be suspected over these crimes.

Once again, the traditional parties perceived a great risk that the extensive nationwide attention that had become part of the events in Oulu would only be useful to the Finns Party. They decided to stop it by jumping on the same bandwagon. The events in Oulu were unanimously condemned, more severe punishments were imposed on the offenders and stronger control over immigration and immigrants was demanded.

As a result of the debate, which had created hysteria, a significant number of citizens believed that the True Finns (predecessor of the Finns Party) had been right in their anti-immigrant criticism all along.

Between December 2018 and April 2019, support for the Finns Party doubled, and they came top in opinion polls just before the elections, with 18.8%. Such a rapid and large increase in support has not been experienced by any other party in Finland. In the elections, the Finns Party received 17.5% of the vote.

You Get What You Asked For

Thus, Finland elected its most politically inexperienced parliament since independence. There are many completely new members, and several experienced politicians were out of the running before the elections or did not stand again. So what’s changed?

This summer, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty will come to an end. In early 2021, the new START treaty restricting US and Russian strategic nuclear weapons will also end if it is not renewed for five years, for which the treaty provides. In the meantime, it is becoming clear what will happen to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty at the heart of nuclear disarmament.

The US and China are on the verge of a trade war and might get into armed conflict in the South China Sea. It is completely unpredictable what Vladimir Putin would do in Europe in such a situation.

When the Finnish parliament reaches the halfway point in its current term, the world may be in complete chaos. How might parliament respond if there were no discussions about foreign and security policy during the election campaign?


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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