Other key actors in the Finnish party system
Until the parliamentary breakthrough of the PS, the Finnish party system was dominated by three large political parties: The Keskusta (KESK - Centre party), the Suometi Sosialidemokraattinen Puolue (SDP - Social Democratic party), and the Kokoomus (KOK - Conservative party). The KESK combines a centrist socioeconomic position with socio-cultural conservatism. The party has traditionally played an important role in Finnish politics because of its strategic centrist location and as a member of both centre-left and centre-right governments. Moreover, as the party of the longstanding president Urho Kekkonen (1956-1982), it had a privileged position in government formation. Kekkonen used his presidential powers (which were quite significant before the 2000 constitutional reform) to influence government formation. Despite a shrinking rural population, the KESK has been successful in maintaining its electorate and, during the last decade, it has received between 15 and 20 per cent of the vote. The SDP has been electorally weaker than the other Scandinavian social democratic parties, but programmatically it is very similar to them with its pro-welfare and tax-based redistributive policies. The SDP’s electoral support has declined and in recent years the party has achieved its lowest electoral results since the early twentieth century. The conservative party KOK is placed to the right on the socio-economic dimension, emphasizing privatization, support for entrepreneurship and lower taxes. In the Nordic context, conservative parties, despite generally supporting the welfare state, have increasingly favoured the introduction of market solutions in the public sector.
The Finnish party system also includes four minor parties: the Vasemmistolitto (VAS - Left Alliance), the Vihreii Liitto (VIHR - Greens), the KristilHsdemokraatit (KD - Christian Democrats), and the Suomen ruotsalainen kansanpuolue/Svenska Folkpartoet (RKP/SFP - Swedish People’s Party of Finland), which is the party representing the Swedish speaking minority in Finland. The VAS is the political successor of communist groups, which were divided between euro-communists and a Soviet-friendly faction. After the fall of the wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, the party maintained its leftist socio-economic position and has adopted liberal values in terms of immigration, gender equality, and environmentalism. The RKP/SFP represents the conservative and liberal Swedish-speaking minority and also tries to attract Finnish-speaking liberal voters.The KD was formed in 1958 and
FIGURE 10.1 Electoral support for Finnish parties (per cent) in general elections from 1995 to 2019
received its first parliamentary seats in 1970. It combines socio-cultural conservatism with a centrist economic position.The VIHR started out as an environmental movement, and received its first two seats in the 1987 parliamentary election. It was the first European green party to take part in a government, which it joined in 1995. Over the last 20 years, the electoral support of these political parties has ranged between 3 and 10 per cent, with the exception of the Greens (VIHR) that in the recent election surpassed 10 per cent (Figure 10.1).
The political opportunity structure
The PS parliamentary breakthrough in 2011 and the ‘mainstreaming’ of this challenger party took place in a particular institutional and contextual setting. The political opportunity structure, as defined by Kitschelt, consists of the structural and institutional factors that can help and constrain the development of political contenders (Kitschelt 1986). Finland has a proportional electoral system with no electoral threshold, which favours parliamentary representation of new parties. Since the SMP first achieved parliamentary seats in 1966, the Finnish parliament has seen eight other new parties gain representation. This is the largest number of new parties among the Nordic countries (Bolin 2012). Due to the dominance of the larger political parties, party system fragmentation has nevertheless remained stable.
The presence of populist parties in the Nordic countries has been linked to the consensual character of their democracies and to their welfare states based on cor- poratist structures (Paloheimo 2012). Finland has been characterized by cross-bloc oversized or surplus majority governments, including two of the larger parties and some of the smaller political parties (Jungar 2002). The existence of a broad consensus, also involving trade unions and employer organizations, has thus provided an enabling environment for a populist challenge to the political establishment.
Obviously, the political institutional setting alone cannot explain the electoral growth and the parliamentary breakthrough of the PS. This party relied on an anti-EU political message in combination with a leftist socio-economic agenda supporting a more equal social welfare, particularly for pensioners and families with children in the rural areas. The party also expressed its opposition to immigration, although for many years this was not a very salient issue. How then can the five-fold increase in its electoral support between 2007 and 2011 be explained? What made one fifth of the Finnish electorate susceptible to populist appeals?
In addition to the general downturn in the aftermath of the 2008 economic recession, which forced the government to make structural reforms in the welfare system in order to cut public expenditure, three other factors should be mentioned: a corruption scandal involving representatives from several political parties; the euro crisis; and the gradually increasing saliency of immigration.
First, in 2008 it was revealed that representatives from several parties had received funding for their electoral campaigns in exchange for support for property developments plans. The main governmental parties were involved, and this obviously provided fertile ground for a populist attack on the political elite colluding with the business sector (Yla-Anttila and Yla-Anttila 2015). Second, the euro crisis, and particularly the bailouts of Greece, Spain, and Portugal, were events that the PS used to mobilize voters. Timo Soini, the party leader, was elected to the European Parliament in 2009 with the largest personal share of the vote - 130,000 votes - among all Finnish MEPs by questioning why the Finnish taxpayers should pay for malfunctioning economics in the three members states hardest hit by the euro crisis. After the PS electoral breakthrough, Timo Soini expressed his view on the bailouts and their consequences in the Wall Street Journal:
[...] we made a solemn promise to oppose the bailouts of euro-zone member states. Europe is suffering from the economic gangrene of insolvency - both public and private. Unless we amputate that which cannot be saved, we risk poisoning the whole body.
(Soini 20 U)
Before the euro crisis, consensus had prevailed among the Finnish political parties on the benefits of the EU and the euro (Raunio 2005). As there was no other party voicing its opposition to European integration and Finnish participation in the euro zone, the PS was successful in carving out an EU-critical niche. In times of increasing scepticism towards the EU, the PS acted as an outsider party challenging the euro project. This paved the way for the parliamentary breakthrough of 2011 (Jungar 2016).
Third, immigration had become a more salient topic in the political debate (Yla-Anttila and Yla-Anttila 2015). The PS adopted more radical anti-immigration positions with the inclusion of nationalist-minded, anti-immigration and Islamophobic groups with roots in different nationalist associations and on-line communities from 2008 onwards (Jungar 2016, 122-123; Nurmi 2017, 22). The strategy, supported by the party leader, to include these groups, was electorally rewarding in the short term, although, as shown below, it also created tensions within the party. The PS increasingly voiced concerns over the weakening of Finnish sovereignty within the EU and claimed that Finnish culture and identity were threatened due to immigration and multicultural policies embraced by ‘left- wing, liberal’ politicians who did not understand ordinary people. Nationalism was clearly formulated in the PS electoral manifesto:
Love of the nation and the Finnishness unites the people irrespective of social class, income, education, party-political differences and other convictions. The basis for our immigration policy is that the Finns have the right to decide under what conditions foreigners settle in our country.
The left-wing liberal establishment was said to be imbued with elitism by PS leader Timo Soini:
The green elitism considers the people of Finland stupid... the greens are the pharisees of politics, judging the lifestyle of the people, their eating habits and travels abroad, their use of energy resources, and so on.
Until the 2011 parliamentary election, economic issues, particularly those linked to the Eurozone crisis, were quite important for the PS.Yet this has changed over the last years (Gronlund et al. 2019).The PS has increasingly focused on socio-cultural debates and has been quite successful in meeting and, at the same time, mobilizing an increasing demand for anti-immigration and anti-EU policies.