Friday, April 01, 2011

True Finns set to shake Europe

A day trip across the Gulf of Finland leads me to Helsinki for the first time in many years. Well, not strictly speaking true, because I am a constant transit passenger at Helsinki-Vantaa airport, but it is about ten years since I last visited the centre of the Finnish capital.

Helsinki in the cold sunshine of early spring is quite a contrast to Tallinn, As the ferry nosed out of the Bay of Tallinn, it was breaking trough the blocks and slush of sea ice and moving slowly through an early fog. yet by mid crossing, the fog (and the ice) had gone and the view of Helsinki's smoking chimney stacks showed the Finnish economy, at least, is growing its production. Once ashore, the straight boulevards of the 19th century Tsarist city leave an impression that is far more Russian than the delicate Gothic filigree of Tallinn's old city. Here and there the massive granite rustication of the 19th century Finnish nationalist architects makes some buildings look more like the home of the mythical Kalev or even of Trolls, rather than of human beings and that, perhaps, was the intention.

After a series of meetings we find ourselves at a loose end for a couple of hours and my colleague and I decide to take a stroll along the Mannerheimintie- the main street of the city. An eclectic mixture of buildings, from the baroque excrescences of the Swedish theatre -currently under restoration- to the simple lines of the Finlandia Hall by Aalto: the Finnish architect who stayed at home, as opposed to Saarinen, who left. Just by this last is a giant statue of Mannerheim himself, seated, as befits a former Tsarist Major General, on his horse.

We cross the road and there is the giant box of the Finnish Parliament: the Eduskunta. Its massive blockishness reminds me a little of Ceausescu's insane Casa Poporului in Bucharest: a massive building, designed to intimidate by shear scale. Yet, today it is clear that people are not intimidated: an election rally is taking place below the ziggurat-like steps up to the doors of the Finnish house of the people.

I say that the gathering was an election rally, but it far more of an atmosphere of protest: the placards denounce the financial crisis and the government's commitment to support the ECB and the European Union. As if to underline the Euro-sceptic nature of the protest, I realise, with a shock of recognition, that amongst the many blue crosses of Finland on the placards is a Union Jack- though appropriately, it appears to be upside down. The crowd is middle aged- even elderly, but there is no mistaking that they are clearly very angry about something.

These are the "True Finns", the Finnish anti European party. They look a little like the blazered gathering of UKIP, and although Finnish Wikipedia declines to put them on the political spectrum, since "as a populist party they do not have a coherent left-right ideology", they may be poised to shake up Finnish politics at the election in a couple of weeks. The True Finns only gained about 4% of the vote last time, but they have been polling as much as 20%, which would put them close to the ruling centre party, and above the Social Democrats, and what they are so angry about is the bail out that Finland may have to subscribe to in order to rescue, in no particular order, Greece, Portugal and Ireland.

The consensus of Finnish politics, arrived at through the difficult years of enforced neutrality after their defeat by the Soviet Union in 1944, is that political agreement is arrived at by compromise over quite long periods. Even now, Finland still dithers over NATO entry, despite the majority being in favour, because the political establishment remains divided. As a result, the rise of the True Finns may take time to have an effect on the direction of the Finnish political consensus. Furthermore, should the True Finns enter a coalition, as seems possible, then the radical edge of their policies would clearly be blunted by the political expediencies of government. Nevertheless, the rapid rise of this populist phenomenon has a clear impact, not only on the Finnish body politic, but that of the EU at large.

The rise of the True Finns shows that even in Finland, usually a model pupil of things European, the impact of the financial crisis is alienating the voters from the European Union. The perception that the bail out is imposing costs upon the responsible in order to benefit the feckless, while unfair, is becoming firmly established. This is mingled with a sense that "foreigners" are taking advantage of the wealth of the Nordic countries, without making much of a contribution - a perception that is more grounded in racial prejudice than in hard evidence.

Right wing populism- and Labour populism in the UK, I might add- finds it easy to build itself up upon a sense of grievance, and the fallout of the economic crisis is creating grievances across the EU. The problem is that in order to tackle the crisis, many of the policies that will work seem counter-intuitive to the average voter. It is hard to explain that borrowing money to pass on to a stabilisation fund has very little impact on the finances of the borrower when the headline numbers-of billions of Euro- are so large. It is even harder to explain why an ECB stabilisation fund should take priority over front line public services, such as education or health, especially when these services are now being severely cut back.

When even the fair minded and serious Finns are prepared to back a populist party of protest, then it is clear that the European voters are in a mean mood. As I wander through the trolls houses of central Helsinki, I am at a loss as to how the politics of anger can be countered.

3 comments:

Joksu said...

The True Finn support is mostly a mirage, an optical illusion very much in the tradition of previous Finnish protest parties. In a nutshell, their supporters are twice as keen to proclaim support in a poll than they are to actually bother to vote for the party. It is estimated that less than half of those declaring their support for the True Finn party voted in the last election.

Cicero said...

Joksu, I wondered if you weren't making a hostage to fortune, and so it proved. The True Finns have indeed made a breakthrough: gaining 33 seats and coming third overall, even overtaking the Centre Party. Given the strongly pro-European position of National Coalition ministers, like Alexander Stubb, it is clearly going to be a very interesting few weeks while a new government is formed.

Anonymous said...

At any rate, the True Finns seem to have found out that operating as a major Finnish party isn't quite the sort of unrestrained joyride as they might've hoped for -- I don't think we'll be seeing them in government now.

This, of course, may win them votes four years on. But if they are ever to enjoy any substantial stake in power, Mr Soini's team of principled parochialists must learn to learn to make rational bargains with the mainstream parties. Otherwise they will simply prove themselves, again and again, unincludable in any workable government coalition.

Our political framework is notoriously compromise-driven; their current predicament could not have come as a surprise to Mr Soini. But I'm not quite sure if the party at large was truly prepared for its own success. It seems their particular brand of populism works much, much better in opposition than in government.

- A Finnish Reader, Helsinki