Finnish Government Faces Rocky Ride as Populists' Support Drops

  • The Finns party backing slumps in countrywide local elections
  • Results could saw discord in ruling three-party coalition

Finnish voters have shunned populists. Doing so may have just caused their government a headache.

Support for the euro-skeptic The Finns, a junior partner in Prime Minister Juha Sipila’s three-party ruling coalition, plummeted in local elections held on Sunday across the country’s 295 municipalities. The vote, a midterm report for the government two years before the next general election, brought the biggest like-for-like electoral drop the party has ever seen.

The result is set to increase the fragility of Sipila’s conservative government, potentially reducing The Finns’ willingness to compromise ahead of a leadership contest in June.

The Finns "failed to raise their key issues on the agenda,” said Ilkka Ruostetsaari, a political science professor at the University of Tampere. “I’m afraid this isn’t going to make the government’s work any easier.”

Sipila’s Center Party and Finance Minister Petteri Orpo’s National Coalition also lost votes when compared to the 2012 local elections, but their losses were more contained.

The Finns’ outgoing leader, Foreign Minister Timo Soini, conceded it would take time for the party to recover from Sunday’s election.

“We were knocked out, but we survived,” said Soini, who is set to step down in June after 20 years in party helm.

One of the main candidates for his succession is Jussi Halla-aho, an anti-immigration member of the European Parliament who wants to take Finland out of the European common currency.

“The Finns will be trying to distance themselves from their government partners” while their leadership candidates will try to differentiate themselves by criticizing the European Union, by talk of quitting the euro and of tightening immigration policy, Ruostetsaari said. “These issues aren’t on the agenda for the other ruling parties,” the professor said.

Soini said his party had suffered disproportionately from the government’s austerity drive.

“What’s been good for Finland has been bad for the party,” Soini said.

Years of weak economic growth have led to a doubling in the public debt of the Nordic region’s only euro nation, to more than 60 percent of gross domestic product.

Policy makers have had to tread a fine fiscal line, shifting between expansionary budgets designed to counter a fall in exports and unpopular measures such as cutting public spending, raising taxes and pushing for a labor pact designed to restore competitiveness.

Despite the prospects of a more quarrelsome coalition, Sipila said the government would continue in its efforts to restore the country’s public finances.

“We’ve made painful cuts, we’ve drawn up the broad outlines of key reforms, and economic growth and employment are heading in the right direction,” Sipila told his Center Party backers late Sunday. “We’ll continue our work to fix Finland.”

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