Traditional or progressive? Kokoomus airs their dirty laundry in public

A heated debate took place across social media, in newspapers and on television between the National Coalition Party's conservative wing, and more progressive members.

File picture showing exterior of parliament with flowers, spring 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

A discussion within the National Coalition Party – known as Kokoomus in Finnish – hit the headlines this week, highlighting the divisions which exist between traditional conservatives and more progressive party members.

Those divisions have always been there, but they were exacerbated by one Member of Parliament Wille Rydman who wrote on Facebook that it was “total nonsense” to say the right wing populist Finns Party are a threat to democracy and the rule of law.

“The Finns Party are no more dangerous party to our social order than, for example, the Left Alliance. There is political extremism on both sides, but neither party can be considered subversive” wrote the Helsinki MP.

Rydman also said in a newspaper interview that the National Coalition Party should get closer to the Finns Party and open the way for future governmental cooperation.

His hand was likely bolstered in recent weeks by Kokoomus leader Petteri Orpo saying that his party should now be considered ‘moderate right wing’ rather than ‘centre right’ – a perceived shift further to the right on the Finnish political spectrum.

So how widespread is this sentiment within Kokoomus? Professor Markku Jokisipilä from the Centre for Parliamentary Studies at the University of Turku says Rydman is an outrider in his party, from an ever-decreasing circle of traditional conservatives.

“Rydman has been the most vocal of the group, and he has grown frustrated at the lack of internal discussion within the party. It started with his social media post […] then it burst out into the public after that” explains Professor Jokisipilä.

“These traditional conservatives are definitely a minority in the parliamentary group, maybe five or a maximum of ten among 38 Members of Parliament, and none of these Kokoomus Members of the European Parliament belong to those traditional conservatives either” he adds.

In the 1980s Kokoomus had a much stronger tradition of dye-in-the-wool conservatism and even in the 1990s when current President Sauli Niinistö was leader they were still a force to be reckoned with inside the party. However, their influence waned when Jyrki Katainen became party chair, and Kokoomus became increasingly more European and progressive.

File picture of Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori in his office at City Hall, 27th August 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

Progressive Kokoomus politicians speak out

In the wake of Rydman’s pro-Finns Party comments, senior figures in Kokoomus were quick to tell a different story.

MEP Henna Virkkunen wrote that the “values Kokoomus wants to build for Finland and Europe are education, tolerance, encouragement, caring, equal opportunities. The National Coalition Party’s open, free and international society is far from the world represented by the present-day Finns Party”.

Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori took to his blog with a more forceful message, while noting that the Finns Party had risen to the top of recent opinion polls.

Vapaavuori writes that although his party and the Finns Party share a common opponent in the government, that doesn’t make them allies.

“In particular, issues of human dignity, climate and Europe are so strongly different between the National Coalition Party and the Finns Party that there is no place for any structural cooperation, not even in opposition” he says.

Vapaavuori goes on to defend the European Union as Finland’s “most important international framework”; to spell out that climate change “is the most important question of our time for all mankind”; and to say that “human dignity is the most important starting point for defining Western values and politics” and that the Finns Party “anchors a large part of its entire political philosophy to a very foreign concept of humanity.”

The Mayor concludes by saying that to avoid any ambiguity, it would be valuable for his party to make “a clear and unequivocal distinction” between them and the Finns Party.

National Coalition Party leader Petter Orpo talks to journalists, 8th May 2019 / Credit: Laura Kotila, Valtioneuvoston kanslia

Petteri Orpo’s role in this discussion 

So did Kokoomus party leader Petteri Orpo make that “unequivocal distinction” that Jan Vapaavuori was looking for? Not entirely.

During the very public discussions on social media, in the newspapers and on television about whether the National Coalition Party could be heading in a more right-wing direction, Orpo stayed largely out of the fray.

He was content for others to do the talking for him – although in a newspaper interview he did repeat a previous line that cooperation with the Finns Party was still possible.

“In terms of ideology Petteri Orpo is definitely not one of those politicians who is strongly guiding the party. It’s one of the reasons he was happy that others came out strongly” in opposition to Wille Rydman’s comments, says Professor Jokisipilä.

“I think it suited him well that others took the role of being opponents to Rydman. He didn’t have to step forward and say the way he is thinking about. He’s definitely one of those liberal guys and already in 2017 when [Jussi] Halla-aho because chair of the Finns Party and was ousted from the government, Orpo was very vocal about the differences between the value bases of the Finns Party and Kokoomus” he tells News Now Finland.

From the other side as well, Professor Jokisipilä reckons the Finns Party wouldn’t be so interested in an alliance with the National Coalition Party, where trust is clearly missing between the two party leaders.

“Orpo is very wary of the Finns Party. As long as he is chairman of the party there is very little chances of cooperation.”