Finnish PM Makes U-Turn as Populist Split Saves Cabinet

Updated on
  • The Finns party lawmakers divide into two groups in parliament
  • Finnish premier to keep his coalition intact with Soini group

Juha Sipila

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

En route to handing in his resignation, Finland’s Prime Minister Juha Sipila took a U-turn. Literally.

Sipila was headed to the coastal town of Naantali where President Sauli Niinisto resides in the summer to deliver his government’s resignation letter when news broke of a split in The Finns party. The premier turned his car around and headed back.

“The government crisis is now canceled,” said Sipila, an avid aviator, who had also piloted a small plane part of the way as he sought a speedy resolution to the political predicament. Parliamentary groups will now meet to sanction his coalition and lawmakers will in the near future vote on confidence in the government, he told reporters Tuesday.

The aborted trip caps four days of political drama, triggered by the Saturday election of the Islam-bashing Jussi Halla-aho as head of The Finns, the junior member of the three-party coalition. The takeover of the party by its anti-immigrant wing was too much to stomach for Sipila and Finance Minister Petteri Orpo’s National Coalition, who on Monday dumped the group from government in a bid to seek a new majority.

Then on Tuesday came the second upheaval within The Finns when its moderate wing with former party leader and Foreign Minister Timo Soini and 19 loyalists formed a new legislative group that would support the government.

“We want to remain a part of Sipila’s government,” Simon Elo, a lawmaker of The Finns told reporters in Helsinki when announcing the formation of the new group.

Teaming up with Soini will allow Sipila to keep a majority, though with backing of 106 lawmakers compared with the current 123. Talks with constitutional experts show that the government doesn’t have to resign and can continue in the current setup, Sipila said.

“Several lawmakers told me their political home was burnt to the ground during the weekend,” Sipila said of the Soini followers aghast at Halla-aho’s takeover of the party.

But The Finns have bled support, falling to as low as 9 percent in recent polls from above 20 percent at one point. Being in government has proved tough for the populist party, which built support through vocal opposition to bailouts during Europe’s debt crisis. While in power it has been forced to back more help for Greece and accepted a jump in refugees.

Read more on The Finns’ upheaval here

The new parliamentary group of Soini loyalists, or “New Alternative,” includes all the party’s cabinet members, including the defense, European affairs and labor and social affairs and health ministers. Halla-aho supporters now have 15 members in the legislature after some other lawmakers also left the group.

Halla-Aho, speaking to reporters, on Tuesday said the lawmakers who left the parliamentary group are now considered as “having resigned from the party.”

The splintering came in handy for Sipila, who was seeking to avoid a snap election with his party also struggling with low support. He has pushed through key reforms, including lowering labor costs, that have helped Finland emerge from a three-year recession.

He had few options to form a new government since all the biggest opposition parties, led by the Social Democrats, declined to help. The Swedish People’s Party and the Christian Democrats were open to talks but such a combination would have produced a very narrow majority and provided a weak mandate to complete key legislation just halfway through the four-year term.

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