December 6, 2023

Finland’s Turn to Right Sends Shivers Through Euro Zone

People joked that watching Finnish politics was about as interesting as watching paint dry.

Until now.

In the general election last weekend, the nationalist and populist True Finn Party emerged from political obscurity after largely campaigning on the evils of the European Union and its bailouts of Greece and Ireland. It claimed 39 seats in Finland’s Parliament — almost eight times the number it won in the 2007 election — and it is likely to become a partner in any coalition government.

The elections drove the governing Center Party from power and left this small and prosperous country reeling. Finns who gather in bars and cafes are dissecting the race, trying to take the measure of what is being called “the protest vote” and what it may mean for their future.

Finland is not alone. Anti-European Union and anti-immigration parties have been on the rise in Sweden, Italy, Hungary and the Netherlands in the past year, and more may follow. It is a worrisome trend for supporters of the union, and for efforts to safeguard the euro by offering emergency loans to the weakest member nations and to better coordinate budget and spending policies in the countries that use it.

Financial bailouts require unanimous approval of all the euro zone members, and there are fears that if Finland balks others may follow.

“One of the dangers is that if a fairly significant country like Finland decides to opt out, the whole support mechanism for the euro could unravel,” said Fredrik Erixon, the director of the European Center for International Political Economy, in Brussels. “There are anti-European opinions and parties not only in Finland but across Europe displaying hostility to using taxpayers’ money for helping neighbors in need.”

The question hangs over the horse trading that has begun over the formation of a new coalition government. Just as the True Finns and their jovial leader, Timo Soini, are pushing an antibailout agenda, Europe is considering yet another rescue package — this time for Portugal.

It is unlikely that the Finnish vote will upend or even delay the Portuguese package, though it could lead to some nervous moments. Usually, it takes about a month to build a governing coalition in Finland, and that is at times when the political parties are not as far apart as they are now.

This week, the departing prime minister, Mari Kiviniemi, declined to bring the bailout issue before Parliament, saying it was up to the new government. At the same time, Olli Rehn, the European Union’s economic and monetary affairs commissioner, was quoted in the Thursday edition of the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat as saying that Finland needed to take a stand on Portuguese aid by May 25 at the latest.

The new government is expected to include the right-of-center National Coalition Party, the left-leaning Social Democratic Party and the True Finns. The parties disagree on issues like the bailout, tax reform and increasing the retirement age.

Mr. Soini (pronounced SOY-knee) has toned down his words in the last few days, though it is unclear how far he will compromise. He is not talking to the news media except to complain about coverage of his party. But during the campaign, Mr. Soini — who is 48 and has been active in politics since he was 17 — repeatedly lashed out at the European Union. (He is fond of calling it “the heart of darkness.”) A true democracy, he has said, is “only possible in individual states.”

He has also sold himself as a man of the people who is attuned to the needs of the poor and working class at a time when the distance between rich and poor is growing and Finland, like many other European countries, is considering austerity measures.

“Soini talks ordinary language with ordinary words,” said Ville Pernaa, the director of the Center for Parliamentary Studies at the University of Turku in Finland. “He told the voters that they were wasting money paying for other people’s debts. Why should they pay for that when we need more doctors in the small towns of Finland?”

Perttu Pouttu, a retired worker for a Helsinki energy company who meets friends in the Hakaniemi Market Square most mornings, said he had voted for the True Finns because Mr. Soini’s arguments made sense to him.

“Of course the bailouts raise questions,” he said. “Will we get that money back? Where are the banks? This is their problem.”

At the same time, Mr. Pouttu said he was worried that Finland had admitted too many refugees. “It does not touch me personally,” he said. “But it bugs me that by law we have to give them apartments. When I retired, no one gave me an apartment.”

The two issues — the European Union and immigration — are increasingly being linked across Europe. “The overwhelming draw of parties like the True Finns is the feeling among some Europeans that they are losing control of their destiny and that their nations are losing their identity,” said Magali Balent, an expert on European politics at the Robert Schuman Foundation in Paris.

But few analysts here believe that Mr. Soini has any choice but to compromise on the bailouts. Even if Finland failed to act, European Union officials said they could keep the bailout on track through complex technical maneuvers.

Mr. Rehn, the European Union’s economic and monetary affairs commissioner, encouraged Finnish lawmakers to consider the country’s long-term interests, taking into account what might happen, say, when the bloc takes up agricultural subsidies.

In the European news media, particularly in Sweden, the True Finns have come under fire as right-wing racists. Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb and others have defended Mr. Soini from such accusations, though other members of his party hold more radical views on immigration.

“Timo Soini is actually a very civilized guy,” said Lasse Lehtinen, a journalist and Social Democrat who is a former member of the European Parliament. “He reads a lot. He thinks a lot.”

Mr. Lehtinen, like others, said that Mr. Soini benefited in the last election from a quiet unhappiness on many fronts.

“I know a lady who voted for the True Finns because she was annoyed at seeing a Roma begging on the street,” he said. “She said no one had been begging on the streets since the 1940s, and she did not like it.”

Suzanne Daley reported from Helsinki, and James Kanter from Brussels.

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