Finland’s Cabinet of Horrors

This article was first published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung on Jul 13th, 2023 – by Pinja Vuorinen.

The Finnish parliamentary elections were held on April 2, but it has taken almost three months for a new government to be formed. After only two weeks in power, Finland’s new right-wing coalition faces neo-Nazi scandals and a mounting opposition to its austerian agenda that make it seem increasingly unlikely to last the full four-year election cycle. In the meantime, however, it is already doing plenty of damage.

April’s national election saw big gains for Finland’s right-wing opposition. The governing parties all lost ground – with the exception of the Social Democrats (Suomen sosialidemokraattinen puolue, SDP), who gained three seats, and the Swedish People’s party (Suomen ruotsalainen kansanpuolue/ Svenska folkpartiet i Finland, SFP), who kept their nine seats. During an election campaign dominated by the national debt and the cost of living – particularly fuel costs– economic policy has a key talking point for the centre-right National Coalition Party (Kansallinen Kokoomus, NCP) and the far-right party, The Finns (Perussuomalaiset).

Even so, the results did not necessarily reflect a wholesale demand for change in Finnish politics. While both the right-wing NCP and The Finns did gain ground in the elections, collective support for the current coalition represents 49,4 percent of the vote, compared to the 49,6 percent enjoyed by the previous centre-left government. It is true that the Social Democrats even gained three seats – however, this may have come at the expense of the Left Alliance and the Greens.

Paving the way for a far-right government

Nonetheless, the results gave NCP leader, Petteri Orpo, an opportunity to open negotiations with either the Finns or the Social Democrats to form government. After weeks of highly polarised election debates, however, and with relations between Orpo and SDP leader Sanna Marin best described as icy, it was highly unlikely that a “blue-red” government was ever on the cards.

Though there was some initial doubt how compatible the “anti-globalist”, EU-sceptic views of The Finns might be with the more traditionally centre-right NCP, it was evident that the parties shared one common goal in particular – imposing economic austerity. It was therefore no surprise that Orpo soon brought The Finns to the negotiation table.

“The Centre always betrays”

This process was aided by the Centre Party (Suomen Keskusta), which made clear it would not be seeking to enter government. Though it is not rare for the Centre Party to change their mind ­– on the contrary, there is a saying in Finland “the Centre always betrays” – after two electoral retreats in a row, it appeared committed to going into opposition. The party pointed to multiple districts it had lost to The Finns in its traditional heartlands and argued that The Finns now had a responsibility to be in government.

That the Christian Democrats (Suomen Kristillisdemokraatit, KD) joined the negotiations surprised nobody, but there was some uncertainty about whether the SFP would do likewise. The SFP’s self-styling as a liberal bourgeoisie party sparked clear tensions with the far-right views of The Finns, but these liberal politics have seldom been a barrier to entering government in order to further the party’s main priority – defending the status of Swedish as a national language.

Before the election, the SFP leader even went so far as to say the party would not join a government that does “The Finns’ type of politics”, but then refused to rule out going into coalition with the party. Unsurprisingly, the SFP’s uneasy relationship with The Finns came to a head multiple times during negotiations on government formation, with both parties frequently finding themselves at odds, and this tension seems likely to re-emerge in the future.

A marriage of convenience?

The negotiations led by Orpo lasted for over seven weeks – the second longest coalition discussions in recent Finnish history. Throughout the process, Orpo frequently described the coalition as a “marriage of convenience”, clearly distinguishing the questions of common values from the more practical task of forming a coalition government with a shared vision of economic austerity.

The negotiations could hardly be described as “convenient”, however, and were plagued with difficulties and discord from the start. Whether it was MPs from The Finns publicly badmouthing their fellow negotiators, or a senior SFP MP wanting to leave negotiations, it was becoming evident that while the coalition was not a marriage of love – it was not a particularly convenient one either.

After a few weeks, the SFP’s youth wing eventually walked out of negotiations, declaring that their party should not be part of the coming government. Soon after, the talks were brought to a halt by The Finns demanding that the issues of immigration and climate be solved before moving forward with anything else, a move which surprised some of the negotiating parties.

Though it was never made public exactly what the points of contention were, both the Finns and the SFP repeatedly insisted that they would not fold. Crisis was soon averted, however, when the SFP secured an agreement that Finland would uphold international human right laws on immigration. A few more minor skirmished followed, but by this point it had become increasingly evident that after weeks of negotiations a coalition government would be formed involving NCP, The Finns, SFP and KD.

A government for the strong

The new coalition named its programme for government “A strong and caring Finland”, but a quick perusal of its main points makes clear this is a program that only cares for the strong. With billions of euros in cuts to social welfare and healthcare, along with tax relief for the richest, the programme is less about “stabilising the economy” than giving more to the rich and taking away from everyone else.

If implemented, the programme would amount to no less than an act of class warfare. In addition to further austerity for those already struggling, the programme takes aim at Finland’s historically strong trade unions, attempting to tie wage increases to exports. Finnish unions have denounced the move as illegal for taking away their bargaining autonomy, but power to respond may be limited, as the government also wants to restrict the right to strike. Unemployment benefits linked to wage-level will be shortened and made gradual, while firing employees will be made even easier.

Perhaps the popular policy is a move to make the first day of sick leave unpaid, a move which would affect low-wage jobs most heavily, and place pressure on those working in the health or service industries to come to work sick. Meanwhile, proposed cuts to an already-struggling public healthcare system – while expanding the role of the private sector – would dangerously undermine the provision of free healthcare. In the education sector, while higher education remains free for Finnish students, the fees for international students have been sharply increased, and the government plans to make student union membership voluntary.

The far right leaving their mark

With regards to immigration, The Finns are already leaving their mark on the government, which has agreed to cut the country’s refugee quota in half, as well as tightening the conditions for migrating to Finland. While the NCP itself had recently argued in favour of work-based immigration – not out of any sense of humanity but rather from a desire for cheap labour – the government’s new programme is only good for stifling migration of any kind.

Likewise, the government’s climate policy is now fundamentally non-existent. The new government policy’s main purpose is simply to keep the price of fuel artificially low (something it has failed to do), and to change the phrase “the green transition” to “a clean transition”. Genuine, desperately needed, effective policies on the climate and environment can be noted only by their complete absence from the government’s agenda.

A scandal-filled beginning

The government’s short time in power has been anything but rosy, as it has been rocked by a series of scandals. Not long after the new cabinet was announced, several ministers from The Finns were exposed for their connections with the far right. The first major case was the Minister for Economic Affairs, Vilhelm Junnila, revealed to have attended a mass rally organised by Finland’s main far-right groups, posted swastikas and KKK-snowmen to his social media profiles, and called for increased funding for an organisation supporting former Finnish SS-volunteers.

On June 26, the parliament voted confidence in the government program (106 in favour, 78 against, with one SFP MP voting blank). Amid national and international outrage, it also narrowly voted confidence in Junnila as minister, 95 votes to 86. Notably, the SFP didn’t vote for Junnila – 7 MPs voting against and 3 blank – and even in the NCP, which was almost unanimous in its support, 3 MPs bucked the trend. One of them, Ben Zyskowicz, is a senior Jewish MP whose father was a concentration camp survivor. A number of NCP members have also quit as a result of the vote.

Despite winning the vote, Junnila had received the support of less than half the parliament, with several MPs absenting themselves form the vote entirely, and he resigned as minister only two days later under renewed pressure when even more outrageous material surfaced. In one case – a speech to parliament in 2019 – Junnila suggested that Finland promote “climate-abortions” to curb population growth in African countries as a solution to climate change.

The rot runs deep

Junnila is only the tip of the iceberg, however. His replacement as minister is Wille Rydman, who left the NCP to join the Finns earlier after allegations were made last year that he had groomed and harassed young women and teenage girls and had also committed rape. The initial police investigation could not find enough evidence to lay charges, and the investigation was dropped, but Rydman had already been condemned by his NCP colleagues, leading him to join The Finns.

The new parliamentary speaker, former Finns chair Jussi Halla-aho – who was quoted approvingly by far-right mass-murderer Anders Breivik – has used his short time in the position to actively stifle and obstruct discussion of Junnila’s neo-Nazi connections. In a role requiring strict impartiality, and which is – formally – second only to that of Finland’s President, Halla-aho’s actions undermine the parliamentary system itself.

Interior Minister Mari Rantanen of The Finns was recently forced to publicly denounce the far-right “Great Replacement Theory” after old social media posts emerged showing her endorsing the racist conspiracy theory. Justice Minister, Leena Meri (also of the Finns Party) also distanced herself from the term, despite having used it in February, and only this week a series of racist and bigoted comments made on a far-right internet forum in 2008 – some of them inciting violence against immigrants and muslims – have been linked to The Finns leader, Riikka Purra.

The thorny road ahead

As these scandals continue to emerge, it remains to be seen how long the government is able to hold things together. Opposition from both the left and from society at-large is already growing, and with a little luck it may be capable of destabilising the new government further. Faced with such an historically right-wing government, there is an urgent need for greater left-wing organisation in the struggle for human rights, workers’ rights and climate action.

The government’s threat to the organised working class and trade-unions could not be any clearer, and the coming years will decide the future of the Finnish negotiation model. Indeed, these attacks are already stirring a backlash around worker’s rights within The Finns, who have benefitted from increased male working-class support in recent years. Social- and health minister Kaisa Juuso – also a member of The Finns – has openly criticised making the first day of sick leave unpaid and essentially called for the unions to fight to overturn the policy.

The actions of the NCP concerning now-former Economy minister Junnila have also proven once again how the bourgeois right-wing parties are willing to cooperate with the far-right, fascists, and their sympathisers in order to implement austerity and make the rich richer. As such, it remains a task of the left to articulate alternatives to the destructive policies of Orpo’s government. For now, momentum is with the opposition – nearly half the population believing the government will not last four years.

However, as the dust from the initial outrage at the government’s policies and its far-right scandals settles, it will be crucial to keep up the pressure and start advocating for our own alternatives, while resisting the government’s agenda at every turn. The government might fall due to its own contradictions, but that does not spell automatic success for the left, so building resistance and building popular, credible alternatives must go hand in hand from the start.

Pinja Vuorinen is chairperson of the Left Youth of Finland.