Finnish Populists' Step to Right Threatens Ruling Coalition

  • Anti-immigration forces take over Finnish populist party
  • Party transformation puts coalition government future at risk

The takeover of Finland’s populist party by its anti-immigration wing sent the Nordic nation to the brink of a government crisis.

Finland’s Prime Minister Juha Sipila has convened a cabinet meeting for 10 a.m. local time to discuss the way forward after his junior partner in government, The Finns party, over the weekend elected Jussi Halla-aho as its new chairman. 

Halla-aho, who has been convicted for incitement against an ethnic group for calling Islam a religion of pedophilia, led the party’s anti-immigration wing. He steps in after party leader and Foreign Minister Timo Soini decided to resign after 20 years at the helm of the group. Other key roles were also filled by firebrands, pushing aside the more moderate populists that controlled the party.

Jussi Halla-aho

Photographer: Jussi Nukari/AFP via Getty Images

“This is a unique event in Finnish political history,” Sipila said in an interview on YLE Radio Suomi on Sunday. Switching out the party leadership “in one fell swoop” will push its policies in a different direction, he said.

The shift to the right is likely to be hard to embrace for the Center and National Coalition parties that form the bulk of the governing coalition. If the cabinet collapses, they would probably try to form a new government with one or several opposition parties, a move that would likely mean major concessions. The premier ruled out snap elections.

Discussing fresh elections is “entirely futile,” Sipila said. “We’ll get through this and find a solution.”

Halla-aho, 46, wasting no time on Sunday, in a speech opened up the party for closer cooperation with other European nationalists movements such as France’s National Front and the Sweden Democrats. Support for the group has almost halved in the polls as it lost backing from its grassroots after joining the government forced it to compromise on immigration and other key issues.

A member of the European Parliament, Halla-aho was fined in 2012 for making anti-Muslim statements on his blog. The party’s new deputy chairman, Laura Huhtasaari, 38, says Finland needs to quit the euro and the European Union and embrace trade protectionism. She has spoken against gay marriage and questioned the theory of evolution. Halla-aho supporters, Teuvo Hakkarainen and Juho Eerola, also gained top posts.

Ever since The Finns “moderated its stance in preparations to join the government” in 2015, “Finland has lacked an extreme alternative in a sense most other European countries currently have,” Nordea Bank Chief Strategist Jan von Gerich said in a research note. “All this changed during the weekend.”

Juha Sipila

Photographer: John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

The party derived its political heritage from a group that claimed to fight for the rights of rural Finns. While it also housed a large anti-immigrant wing, it was never the main thrust of its ideology under Soini’s leadership.

The new The Finns leader batted back criticism that the party was hijacked, saying his election was a reflection of the will of its members. “It would in any case have elected a chairman critical of immigration and the EU because other kinds of candidates were not up for election,” he said in a speech to the party on Sunday.

Though the turmoil threatens to delay economic reforms “no matter what,” little near-term impact is foreseen for Finland’s credit ratings and bonds, von Gerich said. Finland’s current economic “momentum is acting as a small buffer against political uncertainty.”

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