Timo Soini interview: The unrepentant father of Finnish populism

The former foreign minister has a new book out this week, and he's enjoying being back in the spotlight.

File picture of Timo Soini at Council of Europe meeting, Helsinki, 17th May 2019 / Credit: Kimmo Räisänen, UM

Timo Soini’s in rare form.

Seven months out of the political spotlight – seven weeks of which was spent writing his new book on populism – have had a liberating effect on the previously bullish, now ebullient former foreign minister.

For almost an hour he waxes lyrical about his old party (“it was so good that even Mr Halla-aho can run it!); Finnish political discourse (“this is not a sauna competition, if you take too much heat you are burning”); writing (“it was kind of a therapy”); Brexit (“I understand fully this divides people in a tough way”); Nigel Farage (“he’s the funniest person I’ve met!”); being gentlemanly (“I have never been accused of foul language or racism”);  losing weight – 6kg so far (“I still have an old tracksuit, and now there’s room inside”); Sauli Niinistö (“the president phoned me yesterday after my book was published”); and Millwall Football Club (“I’m not a glory hunter!”).

File picture of Timo Soini’s January 2020 book Populismi / Credit: FB

The politician who wrote the book on Finnish populism, has now written a book on Finnish populism.

‘Populismi’, which launched on Monday, is a lean 111 pages (and will be published as an e-book in English on Amazon later this month). Soini reckons this is the Goldilocks of political tomes: not too long, and not too short.

“Usually your focal point, the first hundred pages, this is the news. And the next two hundred pages is making references to other peoples’ opinions. That’s not what I wanted to do” he chuckles.

Mr Soini is clearly enjoying being back in the spotlight after a string of interviews and TV appearances already this week.

“I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I would get, but there was five live streaming channels there. So they still seem to want me” he tells News Now Finland.

“I saw all those political journalists, those who love me and those who love to hate me, and they were all there. And it was nice.”

Soini unrepentant on populism 

Timo Soini’s lasting legacy to Finnish politics has been the True Finns party, which he founded in 1995. Although it didn’t make any significant breakthroughs until the 2011 general election, Soini is unrepentant about using the word ‘populist’ to describe his particular brand of politics.

“I never shied away from the word populist. It’s used as a kind of weapon to label the newcomers who are challenging the old parties and the establishment. This is the establishment’s way to nullify the challenger, to label it bad or immoral” he explains.

“I understood [my political opponents] were anyway going to call me a populist, so I thought what if we said, like in confession” – Soini is a devout Roman Catholic – “yes Father, I have sinned. How can they blame us anymore? They say ‘you are a populist’; and I say ‘yes I am what are you going to do about it?'”

“They say ‘this is outrageous’ and I say ‘I don’t care.'”

“This is how I can define my politics. I know it’s rare that people will take this label on their forehead but this is what I did” Soini adds.

Soini refuses to be drawn on the record to whether he thinks the type of populism he first envisaged for Finland has been corrupted now by far right tropes like racism and ethno-nationalism.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage (L) and Timo Soini (R) / Credit: Soini’s website

Best friends with Brexit mastermind

One of Timo Soini’s most interesting political friendships is with Nigel Farage, former leader of Britain’s anti-EU UKIP party, and then leader of the Brexit Party which did well at the 2019 European Parliament Elections, but which failed to win a seat at December’s general election.

Nigel, he says, “is the funniest person I’ve met. He’s good company, but I do understand many people don’t like his methods.”

Farage is a polarizing figure in British politics, with his anti-EU tirades and jocular man-down-the-pub persona. The campaigns he was involved with, especially the Brexit referendum, have been dogged with accusations of financial mismanagement, possible external interference, social media manipulation and bald-faced policy lies.

“Nigel had a vocation, to get the UK out of the EU, and that was it” explains Soini.

Although Soini voted against Finland joining the EU in 1995, his time as foreign minister seemed to warm him up to the benefits of being in the union.

The main selling point for him is security cooperation which he grudgingly admits is a benefit for Finland.

“I tolerate the membership, but I am not a great believer” he adds.

One point of pride he’s keen to make is that as an MEP he wanted to be constructive in Brussels and Strasbourg – something he thinks Britain’s UKIP MEPs got wrong.

“UKIP didn’t work in the European Parliament. I did work. I went to committees and I made initiatives, but the UK guys didn’t deliver in that sense because they thought the EU doesn’t have rights to make decisions on behalf of UK citizens.”

File picture of Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini (Blue) on an official visit to Estonia, June 2015 / Credit: Estonian Foreign Ministry

What Timo did next

After leaving politics behind this spring, Soini hadn’t intended to write a book. He thought semi-retirement would mean more free time, “going to the countryside and visiting my friends around the globe, giving lectures and earning my bread that way.”

But now that he’s found his mojo again, he seems open to new ideas –  even throwing out a piece of red meat to political reporters at his book launch by saying he could consider another presidential campaign – he’s run twice before – in 2024.

“I was partly joking about that. But let’s have a look” he teases.

“The fact is I’m 57 and if I wanted to do something with my life it’s about time. I know if I had run myself I would have been elected both in European Parliament and Finnish Parliament elections” he says, adding that maybe he’ll run for office again as the sole candidate in his own political party, before pulling back from that thought with a brief “but that’s not my purpose any more.”

He’ll head to London in March to watch Millwall Football Club, a team he’s supported since he was a teenager.

Or maybe he’ll just do something unexpected.

“I can go to Australia and drive coast to coast, and nobody has to know about it. This is a new life.”