When Jussi Halla-aho became Chairman of the Finns Party in June, it was always going to be a controversial move.
The MEP, who was convicted in 2012 of the race hate crime of ‘ethnic agitation’, was considered too extreme by the outgoing party leader and current Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini.
A Finns Party lead by Halla-aho was also considered unpalatable to Prime Minister Juha Sipilä and his Centre Party-lead coalition, and he had made up his mind to take the country to an early general election rather than govern with Hall-aho.
On the day of government collapse, Timo Soini along with 18 other Finns Party MPs, including five cabinet ministers and the Speaker of Parliament, split off from the main Finns Party and formed their own parliamentary group, which kept the coalition happy and the government intact.
And it happened just in the nick of time. Finnish media reports say Sipilä was in the car going to see President Niinistö and ask him to dissolve the government, when he got news of the Finns Party split. He turned the car around. But the work of the breakaway MPs was just about to begin.
“It’s very tough to start from scratch” says Jan Sundberg, Professor of Political Science at Helsinki University.
“There is a possibility that some districts might join them, but I don’t think the True Finns” – he uses the party’s old name in English – “allow it to happen very easily. So in fact […] they have to have a party programme, an organisation, and that’s always a big threshold to doing it” he says.
The split prompted a period of acrimony between former party colleagues which simmered through the summer months.
Relations between the two groups are “polite” these days, according to Maija Karjalainen, the International Secretary of the breakaway Blues. “Some people are more friendly and okay, and some people might be more resentful or reserved” she says.
The splinter MPs are officially known as the New Alternative Parliamentary Group in English; and if they get the endorsements from 5,000 Finnish voters which they need to form a party they’ll be called Blue Future in Finnish, but Blue Reform in English. To make it less complicated, we’ll call them the Blues or Blue Party throughout.
Karjalainen says they are on course to collect those required 5,000 names during October. Other party sources say the Blues have already exhausted their supply of friends and family members willing to sign up, and are now struggling to get enough valid signatures.
But Maijia Karjalainen’s main job is to garner support for the Blues internationally, and position them in the eyes of the British Conservatives and American Republicans in particular, as the legitimate heirs to the Finns Party.
And they’re pulling out all the stops.
“For us, relations with the British Conservatives are quite important and we are keen to continue those. Timo Soini will travel to Manchester, where the Conservative Party conference is taking place in the beginning of October, and he’s going to speak there” she says.
The Blues are using Timo Soini and parliamentary group leader Simon Elo on the other side of the Atlantic as well. Karjalainen notes that Foreign Minister Soini recently met US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “So I think we are also wanting to further those relations” Karjalainen adds.
Finns Party Faithful
MP Tom Packalén, a former Helsinki policeman, says he is “sad” the split came about. But he thinks the move goes “against democracy”. He’s staying with the Finns Party.
“The voters voted for us as the Finns Party. So how can you convince people when you jump out of the party that you were voted for?” he says in a phone interview during a visit to Paris.
“This was a gift from heaven for the Finns Party. We got rid of these elements. We are in a position now as the Finns Party that the Blues have to keep to the government programme. But we are now in opposition and we don’t need to compromise”.
The Finns Party might have got rid of “those elements” as Packalén refers to the Blues, but they voted three members with criminal convictions for race-related offenses to top leadership positions. Packalén brushes this ugly aspect of his party aside.
“It’s very hard to explain, but some of them just didn’t think through their actions. But Halla-aho, in my opinion it wasn’t right to convict him. But it’s done. He was convicted. It’s history”.
On Racism: “We Tried”
The way MP Tiina Elovaara looks at it, the stain of racism within the Finns Party should have been dealt with a long time ago.
The growing anti-immigrant or openly racist elements within the Finns Party was one of the reasons she decided to switch allegiance to the new Blue Group.
“We did struggle for many years after the elections of 2011 already. We saw that there were changes inside the party. We saw this thing happening, but I think you always try as long as you can to keep it together and not fall apart. Kind of like a bad marriage” she says.
When pressed about why Timo Soini didn’t use his position as party founder and leader to clear out the racism within, Tampere MP Elovaara says that “history was the ghost behind Timo”. Soini was previously General Secretary of the Finnish Rural Party which fell apart after the 1995 general election, and Elovaara thinks he didn’t want to see another party go the same way, if there was an internal struggle about weeding our racist elements.
“I think Timo nowadays thinks that something should have been done before. But you always want to believe the best of the people. We did struggle as long as we could. We tried” she says.
The Youth Vote
Finns Party youth wing chairman Samuli Voutila is adamant he’s not for turning.
“I don’t want to be in the Blue Party. The True Finns” – he corrects himself – “The Finns Party is the party I joined seven years ago, and it’s the same party I will be in seven years from now”.
Speaking on the phone from Iceland, where he’s attending a Nordic Council conference, Voutila says that “99% of our youth members stayed, made a statement and supported our party”.
And he thinks that party leader Jussi Halla-aho is the reason why.
“One of the most important things with Finns Youth, they haven’t been coming to politics because Timo Soini is there. Most of them come to politics because of Jussi Hala-aho” he says.
“I have a feeling, now that Soini is not our chairman, that more young women are coming to the youth party. They didn’t like what Soini was saying about women’s rights and abortion” – Soini is a devout Catholic – “Jussi is more liberal about abortion and those kind of things”.
Looking To The Future
Finland’s next general election isn’t scheduled to take place until the spring of 2019, barring any more crisis in government. That’s plenty of time for the two new parties to consolidate their positions and raise awareness of policies. Recent opinion polls put the Finns Party up slightly on 8.8% while the Blues – technically not yet a party – are languishing at 1.6%.
“The Finns Party, with Halla-aho and others, they have profiled themselves more to the right wing populists” says politics Professor Jan Sundberg.
“In fact, there is support for that kind of politics and ideology in this country, and as they are in opposition, it looks more probably that they will take over” he predicts.
“We can see the [Finns] party elite is joining the Blue Group […] they are sitting in the cabinet and they have to take responsibility for things that are happening in this country, and I think it will be very tough for them to defend their position, and also make a distinction between them and the True Finns [Finns Party]” says Professor Sundberg.
In terms of polices, the Blues have set themselves up as a pro-middle class group.
“We are concerned about the middle class particularly, in terms of paying taxes. The government’s line is that the tax rate should not rise” Blues Group leader Simon Elo recently told News Now Finland. He thinks that taxes should actually fall for some tax payers.
Tiina Elovaara thinks there is space for the Blues in Finland’s political landscape.
“I see the Finns Party as a one issue party. I don’t know if they will have a good future because I don’t know if anyone will want to be in government with them” she says.
She would like to see the Blues take a similar, flexible approach as the Finnish Greens – not necessarily defining themselves by traditional left and right political norms, but rather finding ground on an issue-by-issue basis.
“I think the next election will go pretty much 90% to us and 10% to them” predicts Finns Party MP Tom Packalén, who reckons maybe 10% of Finns Party voters would switch to the new Blue Party, but that in general, Finnish voters wouldn’t flock to them.
“I think they calculated this wrong. It’s about their own personal ambitions. They thought the herd would follow them” he says.
And as a parting shot, Packalén channels US President Donald Trump to describe his former party colleagues.
“Who would want to join the Blues? It’s sad!”