Finland comes back into the cold


First published at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

The parliamentary elections in Finland were expected to be decided by a razor thin margin, and the results did not disappoint. It took the major media outlets some hours to finally present a winner for the 2023 parliamentary elections, but in the end, it was clear: the Social Democrat-led government was defeated, and National Coalition Party (NCP) leader Petteri Orpo will become Finland’s next prime minister.

Before the dust of the election had even settled, it was announced that Finland’s membership application for NATO would be approved on 4 April — only two days after the vote. This parliament, then, will be Finland’s first as a full member of the military alliance.

Of the 200 seats in Finland’s parliament, the Eduskunta, Orpo’s NCP won 48, the right-wing nationalist party “The Finns” took 46, and the Social Democrats 43. The mid-sized parties the Greens, Left Alliance, and the agrarian Centre Party were clearly on the losing side of the election, with the Left losing five of their 16 seats and the Greens losing seven out of 20.

A nation divided

In the Finnish electoral system, 13 voting regions send representatives to parliament, with each region’s share of seats corresponding to the respective population size. This made predicting the outcome quite difficult, as Finnish elections are, in fact, 13 separate elections happening at the same time.

Whereas the sparsely populated area of Finnish Lapland will only send six MPs, the region of Uusimaa surrounding the capital, Helsinki, will send 37 members to parliament. The economic motor of Finland, this region was both highly contested as well as a weak spot for the Left, as they only were able to elect up one MP from the region.

Finland, although recently proclaimed the “world’s happiest country” for the sixth time in a row, has several big challenges ahead. The country’s population is aging rapidly, the public health system is in deep crisis, and the PISA study results show that what was previously the world’s best education system is increasingly failing to fulfil its promises of an equal, fair education for all. The electorate is divided along generational and gender lines and there is a growing antagonism between rural and urban areas.

The centres of the bigger cities like Helsinki, Tampere, and Turku tend to be more in favour of green, left, and women-led politics that track the latest developments in Europe or the United States. Meanwhile, with lower rates of university graduates, more industrial sector employees, and a surplus of men, suburban and rural regions are traditionally more conservative.

These are the strongholds of the right-populist party, “The Finns”. In the western region of Satakunta, for example, The Finns were able to gain more than 26.6 percent of the vote share, becoming the strongest force there. In 2019, the Social Democrats still held a thin plurality with 25.21 percent of the votes.

The more sparsely inhabited areas in the east and north of the country have historically favoured the agrarian Centre Party, which was in power for decades following World War II and most recently held the prime minister’s spot prior to the Social Democrats’ victory in 2019. Since that time, however, the party’s support has steadily declined and reached a historic low of 11.3 percent. The Finns were able to win over many of these voters in this election, particularly in rural areas in the north.

Austerity looms

The Centre Party has, on several occasions, opposed new reforms proposed by others in Marin’s five-party coalition – the Social Democrats, Greens, Left Alliance, and Swedish People’s Party. In doing so, the Centre Party attempted to present itself as the voice of reason against the “left bloc” within the coalition, attempting to appease its many voters unhappy with participation in the government from the start.

This distrust came to a head in the government’s first year, as the Centre Party publicly voiced distrust of the coalition’s first prime minister, Antti Rinne, over his intervention in a postal service workers’ labour dispute. The postal service controversy ultimately forced Rinne to resign and cleared the way for Sanna Marin to take over as prime minister.

The Centre-led Ministry of Finance did the coalition a further disservice last December by publishing an outlook review proposing several measures “to improve general government finances by at least 9 billion euro over the next two parliamentary terms”. This report, and its underlying implication that there was no alternative to austerity, set the tone for the following months of campaigning.

The right wing, especially Petteri Orpo’s NCP, used it to accuse Marin’s centre-left government of spending money irresponsibly. This has been a key campaigning point for the NCP, although almost all European countries took on debt during the COVID-19 pandemic, as interest rates were unprecedentedly low.

Indeed, the NCP’s promises to execute an austere economic policy and cut government spending within the next four years — to the tune of around 6 billion euro — has often been uncritically framed by the media as rational, normalizing an inherent “there is no alternative” logic in Finnish public discourse.

Marin’s Gift and the Finnish backlash

Sanna Marin, Finland’s Social Democratic Prime Minster, is the Nordic country’s most globally recognized politician in history. The young, charismatic Marin, who grew up in a rainbow family, injected an urban, leather jacket-wearing, feminist energy into her party — something it sorely needed.

This fact, as well as Marin’s clear positioning within the left wing of the party, is one reason for the left-leaning thrust of the Social Democrats’ campaign. At this election, the neoliberal right sought once again to push its austerity agenda, but unlike in the past, this point of view did not go unchallenged. The NCP´s campaign for cuts was opposed by Marin, and the Social Democrats refrained from committing to the kinds of vast cuts to social benefits the party promised during the last “public debt” elections in 2015.

Furthermore, Marin publicly called The Finns a “racist party” and ruled out forming a future government with them, although the move was interpreted by some as an attempt to win over some Green or Left voters. If so, it was a failed strategy given the Finnish electoral system — while the Greens and Left Alliance lost a combined 12 seats, the Social Democrats were only able to gain three seats, meaning an overall loss for the Green-Left bloc.

The Finns have been on the frontlines of the attack on Finland’s open society. It has increasingly become the party of working- and middle-class men, especially in suburban areas and mid- to small-sized towns. Under recently elected Riikka Purra, the party benefited from the pandemic, as it was the only visible political force opposed to COVID restrictions, cultivating a large base among vaccine sceptics and conspiracy theorists.

Middle-aged men are their key demographic, but the party also managed to generate a great deal of support mong younger age groups through their outsized presence on social media — especially the video-sharing service Tik-Tok. Videos labelled with perussuomalaiset, the party’s name in Finnish, are apparently favoured by social media algorithms, a phenomenon that has been observed in the past with regard to, for example, right-wing tweets.

Support for the Finns Part, as with other right-populist parties in Europe, appears to transcend specific political positions, and is instead more about opposing the mainstream as such. For example, it is the only party opposing the country’s ambitious climate goals — during Marin’s tenure, Finland committed to become carbon-neutral by 2035.

A defensive left

During their campaign, the Finn used the example of Sweden’s recent problems with gang violence to paint a gloomy outlook for Finland on many occasions. So far, however, this has failed to gain traction among voters. For instance, the party heavily played up a racist debate  about correlations between schools with weak test results and the percentage of pupils with Finnish or Swedish as a second language. The debate was sparked by the Finnish public broadcaster’s publication of an online tool allowing users to check schools’ percentages of pupils with Finnish or Swedish as a second language.

The Finns Party has been particularly successful in building their own recognizable brand and a strong, repetitive narrative that could be paraphrased as:

The left-green urban feminist class does not care about “normal people” anymore. Energy, fuel, and food are all too expensive because climate policies are causing artificially high prices and therefore must stop until costs of living are under control. Foreigners are threatening children in bigger cities and are living off of Finnish people’s tax money! The borders should be closed!

The party’s public slogans have been simple and easily recognizable, such as “Save Finland!” One could argue that they almost transcend politics, as they did not even publish an election programme — their positioning as an anti-mainstream voice, and the implied racist promise of keeping Finland ethnically white, suffice to construct their desired narrative.

In government, the Green-Left parties were in a more difficult position from which to build promising narratives. The Left Alliance tried to show that it had kept a wide range of its previous election promises, such as investing in early childhood education, legal reforms benefitting transgender people, and reversing the hardest cuts of the previous right-wing government. But with the election campaign circling around the question of who could become next prime minister, the Left Alliance lost parts of its votes to Marin’s Social Democrats. The Finnish Left also appears to lack a long-term strategy that transcends defending the status quo, an issue it shares with many European Left parties.

All quiet on the Eastern Front

There are two likely scenarios for government formation. As different as they are, in both scenarios the process of forming a majority coalition will probably be a long and arduous process.

Petteri Orpo and the NCP could revive the bourgeois government of 2015–2019, with the Finns and the Centre Party providing the missing votes needed for a majority. That said, the Centre, which was responsible for several minor and mid-sized government crises over the last four years, will not easily be lured into a support role for government once again.

The Centre Party’s decline in support during the last years from one of the three major parties, to one fighting to reach 12 percent readily explains its supporters’ grief. The party was accused of giving in to the reforms of the so-called “left bloc” too often, and is now unwilling to continue in government, as it would run the risk of “governing itself into marginality”.

Petteri Orpo could also become prime minister at the head of a so-called “blue-red” coalition, with the Social Democrats as junior partner. This would require a drastic economic and political shift by the Social Democrats and probably a new, centre-leaning leader, meaning an end to Sanna Marin’s reign. In that case, Marin’s political career could still continue in an international organization, such as the European Union.

The next four years will see a completely different Finland take the world stage. Integrated into the NATO alliance, Finland will lose its past position as a mediator between Russia and the US. Joining NATO, Finland is finally becoming a “Western country” and, like other Western European countries, its democratic foundations face the growing challenge of right-wing extremism or radicalized conservatism.

These challenges can also be seen reflected in the composition of the new parliament. The far right has achieved a record result, while long-term peace advocates like left-wing Social Democrat Erkki Tuomioja are dropping out of political life, and politicians with a military background such as former Major General Pekka Toveri of the NCP will play a prominent part in the first Finnish parliament as a NATO member state.

Robert Stark is a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation alumnus and member of the Left Alliance in Helsinki.