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Sour Grapes After Finland’s Parliamentary Elections
The opposition’s cynical strategy to topple the new right-wing government is based on selective outrage about racism
There was a demonstration against racism in Finland in early September. More than 10,000 people marched the streets of Helsinki. What prompted this event? Was it in response to some major incident of, say, police brutality against black and brown people? No. Although there is a growing problem of serious violence associated with immigrant youth gangs, this alarming trend has not resulted in any complaints about law enforcement.
The real reason for the demonstration was not racism but generalized displeasure with the new right-wing government that replaced the one led by charismatic Prime Minister Sanna Marin. Yes, the liberal elites of Finland simply cannot stand that the newly minted ruling coalition includes the populist Finns Party, known for its anti-immigrant agenda and overall resistance to multiculturalism, gender ideology, small talk, hot yoga, cold brew and other cosmopolitan trends that (they feel) are turning their homeland into Berkeley-on-Ice.
Ever since the new government was announced, the opposition has sought to topple it by targeting the most vulnerable member of the coalition, the Swedish People’s Party of Finland (SPP). Have you ever seen those nature documentaries where a pack of mountain lions isolates the weakest deer from the herd to attack and devour? That’s what’s really going on in Finnish politics. With accusations of racism, the opposition’s tactic was to set the SPP against its fellow coalition members.
Divide and Conquer
Over the years, the SPP has been a perennial member of the Finnish government regardless of the election results. The party’s only raison d’être is to safeguard the rights and privileges of the nation’s Swedish-speaking minority, which comprises 5% of the population. Although it is a right-leaning party, it is known for its enthusiastic support for immigration, refugees and most things international. The party’s cultural disposition likely reflects their voters’ ethnic connection to Sweden, a country that—for better or for worse—has been much more progressive than Finland in these matters.
Aware of the value conflict between the cosmopolitan “Swedes” and the provincial “Finns,” the opposition forces have been busy digging up dirt on the latter to persuade the SPP that the coalition is not worth the price of admission. The idea is to make it too costly for the reputation of the SPP to remain in the government, whose survival depends on the loyal participation of every member of the coalition. This is where the accusations of racism come in handy.
In July, less than one month after the new government had been formed, an anonymous X (formerly known as Twitter) account disseminated bigoted and xenophobic content gleaned from a semipublic discussion forum. Dating back to 2008, these forum entries proved to have been written by Riikka Purra, who at the time was eight years away from entering politics but is now the leader of the Finns Party and the minister of finance.
Several of the reported statements are quite damaging indeed. In her extensive response, which includes a clearly worded apology, Purra bemoans the lack of context in the selective reporting of her entries from 15 years ago. Specifically, Purra claims many of her more vitriolic comments were written in response to humiliating experiences of “sexual harassment by immigrant men.”
A few weeks later, Helsingin Sanomat, the largest newspaper in the country, published compromising text messages shared by the estranged girlfriend of Wille Rydman, the minister of economic affairs. Written in 2016 when he was a young but established politician, these private messages contain derogatory statements about Somalis and Arabs, among other clearly racist content. Mr. Rydman has refused to comment because, in his view, that would legitimize the paper’s decision to publish intimate messages without his consent. These are just two examples of how the forces on the left, including much of the mainstream media, have tried to discredit the government as racist.
United Against Racism
In response to these and other similar scandals, the Finnish government created a task force to address concerns about racism within its ranks. In late August, the government released a joint statement listing 20 action items to increase equity and dismantle structural racism. To underscore the importance of this antiracist agenda, Prime Minister Petteri Orpo, the leader of the National Coalition Party, took the responsibility for its execution under his own office.
None of this has satisfied the opposition, many of whom continue to describe the government as pursuing a racist agenda. In social media, Veronika Honkasalo, a member of parliament in the Left Alliance party, argued that “the politics of the Finns Party is based on racism. The party does not exist without racism.” In other words, according to her, as long as the coalition includes this particular party—the second-largest party in the parliament—the government is directly implicated in racism.
A notable feature of this campaign against the government is that the concerns about racism have focused more on the nation’s international reputation than on the lives of racial minorities living in Finland. The opposition seems to be more troubled by the image of Finland abroad than the actual problem of racism. This concern further highlights the strategic nature of the effort. The idea is not to effect positive social change but to shame the internationally oriented base of the SPP.
Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist?
Let me be clear: There is undeniable evidence of racist and hateful speech in the personal history of several representatives of the Finns Party, a populist movement fueled by opposition to large-scale immigration and multiculturalism. This kind of movement is not unique to Finland, however, but has emerged successfully also in Norway, Sweden and Italy, among other countries. Personally, I believe there is no excuse for hateful speech in political discourse, which is why I am pleased that the Finnish government has taken a clear and forceful stand against racism.
As it turns out, predicaments of this kind are not unique to the leaders of the Finns Party. On September 1, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) chose Antti Lindtman as its leader to replace the former Prime Minister Sanna Marin. In a matter of days, a compromising old photo emerged, showing Lindtman posing with his friends who are performing a Nazi salute. Unsurprisingly, this blemish has done little to damage the reputation of the SDP or its voters. Selective outrage is alive and well in Finland.
Meanwhile, Sanna Marin has moved on from Finnish politics, having recently accepted an executive position at the London-based Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. It should surprise no one that she has chosen to capitalize on her international appeal. Her critics in Finland, however, have questioned her decision to work for an organization that, among other baggage, is reported to have accepted funding from the government of Saudi Arabia even after Saudi authorities were implicated in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. True, that killing was not a racially motivated hate crime. But is it the kind of “global change” we should be affirming?
Let’s Move On, Already
If we focus on the present and evaluate the emerging track record of Prime Minister Orpo’s government, there is no evidence of racism or bigotry—unless the goal of curbing the flow of asylum-seekers is considered racist. Under that definition, the current governments of, for example, Sweden and Denmark are also guilty as charged. Perhaps this is why the leaders of the SPP of Finland have been able to justify their continued participation in the coalition.
My personal wish, as a relatively nonpartisan expat, is for the left-wing opposition to take a breather, regroup and focus on the actual deeds of this government. I’m confident members of the opposition will find plenty to criticize about the proposed policy reforms, such as the “radical” decision to reduce the age of eligibility for benefits under child protective services from 25 to 23.
Should the opposition persist on its current path, it is likely to accomplish little more than prolonging its relegation from the position of power. The people of Finland are smart and can see through this cynical strategy.