Islam-Bashing Finn Grasps for Win That Could Shake Government

  • Government may collapse if Halla-aho wins party leadership
  • Reforms needed to boost public finances may grind to halt

A man convicted of a diatribe against Islam could soon shake the foundation of the Finnish the ruling coalition.

Jussi Halla-aho, fined for incitement against an ethnic group after calling Islam a religion of theft and pedophilia, is bidding to become head of The Finns party, a member of three-party center-right coalition that has been in power since 2015. He faces off against Sampo Terho, the European affairs minister, as members vote to replace Foreign Minister Timo Soini who’s stepping down after 20 years at the helm.

Jussi Halla-aho

Photographer: Jussi Nukari/AFP via Getty Images

While Terho is the favorite among party officials, polls suggest Halla-aho has the backing of the party’s grassroots ahead of the hard-to-predict vote on Saturday. The 46-year-old Halla-aho’s extremist views and demands to crack down on immigration would likely be hard to stomach for the establishment Center and National Coalition parties that form the bulk of the coalition.

“The Finns choosing Halla-aho would be the tightest spot for this government so far,” Erkka Railo, a political scientist at the University of Turku, said in a phone interview. “Until now, I haven’t seriously believed that the government could collapse.”

A rift in the coalition could endanger the reform agenda that has helped propel Finland back from a three-year recession. 

Prime Minister Juha Sipila has forged agreements that have cut labor costs and brought back growth in a bid to put public finances on track again after a decade of troubles that has left the northernmost euro economy smaller than it was 10 years ago. The government is now in the midst of revamping social and health care policies and municipal reforms that are seen as key projects to ease the structural pressure caused by a rapidly aging population.

A government shake-up could endanger these crucial reforms, according to Heidi Schauman, chief economist at Aktia Bank. This scenario is “unlikely, but possible,” she said.

The labor market reforms “have been in the right direction,” Schauman said. “I would like to see that continuing.”

Read more on Finnish economy recovery here

After building up backing outside the halls of power with an anti-European Union and anti-immigration message, the populist The Finns have been hemorrhaging support since joining its first coalition in 2015.

Read more on how populist losses show winning power can be disastrous

That may prove fertile ground for Halla-aho’s brand of politics. Now a member of the European parliament, he catapulted to fame because of his blog “Scripta - Writings From a Sinking West,” where he railed at immigration and multiculturalism. He has a PhD and studied and taught Old Church Slavic at the University of Helsinki. Halla-aho didn’t return a call and a message seeking comment.

The other contender, 39-year-old Terho, is more moderate, though he isn’t hiding his distaste for Europe’s common currency either, which otherwise has broad backing in Finland. But a Terho win would likely mean the coalition will continue, according to Railo.

“Halla-aho seeks tighter immigration policies and has said the government platform would need to be renegotiated,” Railo said. “Sipila has rejected that.”

Should the coalition split, the first likely step would be that a new government would be formed from the current parliament, according to Railo. In that case, Sipila’s Center Party and Finance Minister Petteri Orpo’s National Coalition will probably need to make major concession to entice one or several opposition parties to join them.

While Sipila can call snap elections ahead of the next scheduled vote in April 2019 “he’s going to turn over every rock before he does that,” said Railo. “The Center Party would lose that vote. He may be ready to give quite a bit of ground” to avoid that, he said.

So the vote this Saturday could have big implications. About 2,300 members are expected to show up and vote in Jyvaskyla, with the results known at about 2 p.m. local time.

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