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Immigration and Multiculturalism as Contested Topics in Finland’s 2015 Pre-Election

0 Comments 🕔02.Dec 2015

This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.

A statue of former Finnish President Kyösti Kallio and the Parliament House of Finland. Photo credit: Tomi Lattu.

by Suvi Keskinen

The huge rise in support for the (True) Finns Party in the 2011 Finnish parliamentary elections caught the attention of many political commentators in Europe and all over the Western world. Indeed, this was by no means an insignificant event: the party’s electoral share rose from 4 to 19 percent in only four years. It has also become clear that the party cannot be treated as a political flash in the pan; in the latest elections in April 2015, the Finns became the second largest party in Parliament, winning 18 percent of votes and are participating in the center-right government. While not a totally exceptional phenomenon, it is, nevertheless, rare for a right-wing populist party to participate in government in Europe. Given that Finland is among the EU countries with one of the lowest shares of migrants and the descendants or migrants (the number of foreign-born inhabitants was 5.2 percent in 2012, according to Statistics Finland), how can the fast rise of a nationalist, anti-immigration party be understood?

The answer lies in the way the party has managed to construct a national “us” to be defended in the midst of (neoliberal) globalization and the alleged invasion of non-Western “others.” The growth of the party is predominantly a result of its effective capitalizing on the ethnically-defined imagined community (us) and its constitutive outside (them) in a move that has combined three themes. Firstly, and especially in the pre-2011 election period, the Finns mobilized anti-EU sentiment and fought against financial support for southern European countries, notably Greece, when the Eurozone crisis arose. Secondly, the Finns party has gained support in the economically declining areas in the northern and eastern parts of the country, where the closing of paper mills and the metal industry has suffocated local communities. These communities have also suffered from the end of regional politics that earlier sought to keep these areas inhabited and economically lively. Last but not least, the Finns party has mobilized segments of middle-class and working-class voters to support an anti-immigration agenda that references both economic and cultural arguments. While the party has made it clear that it is not against all kinds of immigration, at least claiming to support the mobility of well-educated people who will be beneficial for the national economy, its criticism is directed towards non-Western migrants, especially asylum seekers and refugees, the number of which the party wants to reduce considerably.

The rise of the Finns Party already began in municipal elections in 2008, although this was nothing compared to what the following years would bring. These municipal elections brought to public attention several new councilors who campaigned with an anti-immigration agenda, among them the current Euro-parliamentarian, Jussi Halla-aho, later also sentenced for racist speech. The anti-immigration activists have mobilized, especially through social media, developing a web-based forum, Hommaforum, to gird themselves politically. In the 2011 elections, the Finns Party became the third largest party in Parliament but decided not to participate in the government. From 2011 to 2015, a so-called ‘rainbow government’ reigned Finland, with parties from the right and left. Understandably, agreeing on policies and actions was not easy for such a government, and two parties left the government before the end of this period. The Finns used their time in the opposition to strengthen their party organization and develop local activities throughout the country.

A couple of months before the parliamentary elections in April 2015, polls showed declining support for the Finns. However, the party managed to counteract the downward trend, and while it lost 1.4 percent of the vote compared to the previous elections, it nevertheless secured its position among the larger parties, and currently participates in the government together with the Centre Party and the Conservatives.

2015 pre-election debates centered on economics, the rising state debt and the cost of the welfare state in a rapidly aging country where the private sector has encountered serious setbacks since the 2008 economic crisis. In these pre-election debates, the Finns took a middle-of-the-road position, agreeing with the center-right parties on the need for several billion euros in financial cuts to the state economy while simultaneously claiming to defend the socio-economically weak groups that depend on welfare benefits. Thus, while the party sought to appear as a legitimate political force, qualified to govern, it also struggled to appeal to the less-wealthy segments of the voter population, groups that are most likely to be hit by the planned austerity measures.

Crowds at a Helsinki Train Station

Crowds at a Helsinki train station. Photo credit: Andrew E. Larsen.

That falling support for the Finns was reversed in the pre-election period can be explained by two types of discourse used by the Finns Party in their political campaigns and social media interaction: first, a rhetoric that emphasized the risks of immigration to the welfare state and its economy, focusing especially on the alleged costs of asylum seekers and refugees due to the higher unemployment rates of these groups compared to the average population; and second, the perceived threats to both national and local security, as well as gender equality that those same groups claimed to propose.

The alleged economic costs of asylum seekers and refugees have been a central concern for many political parties in Finland since the 1990s. The Finns Party has, therefore, been able to rely on rhetoric shared by a wide array of political actors; however, it has also radicalized these claims and developed policy motions to reduce welfare benefits and services to immigrants. Welfare state rhetoric is effective in a country like Finland, which is proud of its participation in the “Nordic welfare model,” coined by Gösta Esping-Andersen at the beginning of 1990s, and where national identity is closely connected to the idea of an egalitarian and universal welfare state. It should also be noted that the universalism of the “Nordic” welfare state is nationally defined and thus bound by the exclusionary thinking embedded in such rhetoric. Although it has been shown time and again that the direct costs of receiving immigrants are not very high and add little to the debt problems facing the country, the Finns party has, nevertheless, managed to convince a considerable number of voters that such issues should be at the center of politics. It is also clear that “economic cost” rhetoric is used to refer to racialized groups that originate in African and Middle-Eastern countries in order to prevent accusations of racism that more openly culturally othering discourses often raise from political opponents and anti-racist groups.

Still, cultural othering and racialization is part of the Finns’ political rhetoric. Migration from non-Western countries is clearly labeled as a threat in discourses that focus on security and alleged threats to gender equality. Although the number of Muslims in Finland is low, similar discourses on perceivably oppressed Muslim women and violent and terror-prone men which have spread in Europe, especially since 9/11, also characterize Finnish public discussions. In recent years, discussions of honor-related violence and rape cases have been part of immigration debates in social and print media. A few weeks before the parliamentary elections of 2015, an event took place in a suburb of the capital city, Helsinki, in which four teenage black men were accused of raping a white Finnish woman after they got off a local train. Especially on social media, the event was used to argue that Muslims men and men of African descent allegedly pose a threat to white Finnish women and the overall society.

Particularly since Finland represents itself as a country with exemplary achievements in gender equality, along with the other Nordic countries, such accusation find fertile ground. While such notions present the white majority population as gender-equal, inequalities are projected onto racialized “others.” Such arguments have been reproduced in immigration debates for a number of years, but for many voters, these claims now seemed to be confirmed by the emotionally-charged debate that took place after this event.

As in many other European countries, the right-wing Populist Party in Finland has secured its position in the political field and increased its influence on local and national decision-making. This process is a reflection of the rise of national concerns in the context of neoliberal globalization, but even more so a question of political campaigns in which an ethnically defined “us” is posited against “others” within and on the borders of the nation, making use of essentializing and racializing portrayals of non-Western migrants and their children.

 

Suvi Keskinen is Associate Professor and Academy Research Fellow at the Department of Social Research, University of Turku, Finland. She has conducted research on migration, racism, gender, politics and welfare state for several years. Her current research project examines postethnic activism in the neo-nationalist and neo-liberal era. Previously she studied right-wing populism and immigration debates in Finland.  She is the Finnish coordinator of the Research Network on Nordic Populism (NOPO), funded by Nordforsk 2011-2015. She has published widely in international and national peer-reviewed scientific journals (such as Journal of Intercultural Studies, Nordic Journal of Migration Studies, Social Identities) and anthologies (for example the co-edited book Complying with Colonialism. Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Nordic Region, Ashgate).  

 

This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.

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