How a Finnish Crisis Ends: Populists Rebel and the PM U-Turns

Updated on
  • Finland’s four-day political impasse ends as PM saves cabinet
  • Populist party splits in rejection of anti-immigrant forces

Juha Sipila

Photographer: Tomi Setala/Bloomberg

A group of rebels splintering a wounded populist party. The prime minister piloting a plane to hand-deliver a resignation letter to the president. Then a call stops him in his tracks and saves the government.

All this played out during one extraordinary day of House of Cards-like politics on the northern edge of Europe. On Tuesday, Premier Juha Sipila woke up to what looked to be the last day of his cabinet just halfway through its four-year term. Sipila had booted out his junior coalition member, The Finns, after it was taken over by its anti-immigrant wing. He was now facing tough negotiations to emerge with a new majority.

Then the rebels stepped in, splitting the populist party. More than half its parliament members rejected the leadership switch and pledged allegiance to the government.

“This was an unprecedented event in Finnish political history,” said Markku Jokisipila, who heads the Centre for Parliamentary Studies at the University of Turku. “The whole plot was so intricate and unusual.”

Sipila, an experienced aviator, piloted a small aircraft to head out to the coastal town of Naantali, where President Sauli Niinisto resides in the summer, to deliver his government’s resignation letter. It was simply the quickest way, he insisted. Landing at 2:20 p.m., Sipila hopped in a car for the last miles. Already almost there, he got the assurance the coalition could be saved.

Skipped Coffee

“I called the President and told him my judgment was that I didn’t need to resign,” Sipila said. “Then I asked whether we should have some coffee or whether I should head back.”

With mutual agreement to cancel the meeting, the premier took a U-turn.

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 at least 19 loyalists formed a new legislative group that would support the government.

“Having a large political party in parliament split in two like The Finns did is extremely rare,” Jokisipila said, adding that the closest parallel dates to the end of the 1950s.

The Constitution

Finland’s constitution is what made it all possible. Providing little detail on how to overcome stumbling blocks, the constitution leaves plenty of room for maneuver.

“There is an unwritten assumption that crises are solved through negotiations on an ad-hoc basis,” Jokisipila said in an interview. “For instance, the constitution doesn’t recognize political parties, which complicates things. Ministers are appointed as individual cabinet members.”

Sipila said he consulted with constitutional scholars to determine that he didn’t have to resign and could carry on ruling the Nordic country in the current setup. The constitution, in force since 2000, treats lawmakers as members of legislative groups -- and so if a party’s lawmakers splinter into separate groups, they carry constitutional rights and responsibilities with them.

The Finns party under Halla-aho is unlikely to gain popular backing above the current levels of about 9 percent, Jokisipila said.

“They will become parliamentary outcasts as other parties deem them unfit to govern,” Jokisipila said.

For Sipila, the drama isn’t over either.

He now faces a confidence vote to cement his new majority. The vote will take place on Tuesday, news agency STT reported. After that, he needs to get back on track with the key legislation to ensure Finland doesn’t backslide in its emergence from a protracted economic slump.

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