Immigration and welfare state “crisis”: the low hanging fruit of populist rhetoric

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Author: Gwenaëlle Bauvois

Three different parliamentary populist parties are currently running for the Parliamentary elections – the True Finns, Blue Reform and the Seven Star Movement – but despite their efforts to stand out, they do not offer anything new regarding welfare nationalist framing of anti-immigration mobilization. 

For years, populism in Finland has been embodied by the True Finns with their historical score of 19,1 % in 2011. However, not only their overall support has decreased – they are credited of 13,3% on March 5 – but they now have to share the populist stage with two other parties[1]. Blue Reform – created by a group of True Finns MPs in June 2017 as a protest against Jussi Halla-Aho’s election as the party leader – which is credited of 1,8 %. And the Seven Star Movement founded by political veteran Paavo Väyrynen in November 2018 with less than 1 % in the voting polls. 

Do these new parties have something different to offer from the True Finns? On the economic and social matters, in some respect yes, as the three parties share different core values. According to a large-scale analysis of candidate’s values by Helsingin Sanomat, all parties have moved towards more liberal values in the past four years, except the True Finns who are placed on the most conservative axis of the Finnish political chessboard, while the Seven Star Movement is more on the “left” and Blue Reform more on the “right”.   

Regardless of these value-based differences, the three parties also undisputedly share common ground. Not only their discourse around immigration and welfare is similar in many respects but so is their political style, i.e. the way politicians speak and politicize issues for the public (Ylä-Anttila, Bauvois, Pyrhönen, 2019). The three populist parties spread a sense a “crisis” within Finnish society (Moffit, 2016): First, by claiming that the Finnish welfare state is collapsing and must be restored. This is a traditional welfare nationalist discourse where welfare and national identity are combined. Second, by claiming that immigration must be controlled and security must be reinforced to protect Finnish citizens from the danger caused by this uncontrolled influx of immigrants.  

Programmes of the three parties and the “crisis” of the Finnish society

The True Finns “want to get welfare state back” on one hand, as it should be only for Finns and not for immigrants, but what they do not want on the other hand is “harmful immigration”. Immigration has a heavy cost on taxpayers and all that money “is taken away from you, Finnish citizen”. The True Finns present themselves as the only ‘real’ and legitimate voice against immigration in Finland. 

For Blue Reform, their very first mission is to get “thousand of new police officers” and implement “harder convictions for sex crimes”, a barely hidden reference to “foreign” sexual attackers who are endangering “our motherland”. Their second mission is to aim at a “safe immigration”: by safe, they mean that “immigration must be controlled and criminals must be expelled from Finland”.  

The Seven Stars Movement wants to defend Finland’s independence and support a “controlled migration and immigration policy”. For this purpose, they chose as their “star candidate” the founder of anti-immigration website MV Lehti: Ilja Janitskin. Found guilty of 16 criminal charges including aggravated incitement against an ethnic group,  Janitskin is “a man who’s better than his reputation” and who “was unfairly treated” for daring “to challenge the mainstream media”, according to Väyrynen.  

What outcomes should we expect?

Even if the True Finns have been losing ground, they have seen the highest rise of all parties in the latest polls: +1,8 % in February and +1,3 % in March. Blue Reform has also seen a +0,4 % rise – while several of the main traditional parties are experiencing a loss, such as the National Coalition with -2,3 %. This rise can be explained by the recent news of crimes attributed to “foreign background” individuals in Oulu and Helsinki that have been heavily covered in mainstream and countermedia. Sampo Terho of Blue Reform has for instance urged for the deportation of foreign sex offenders. 

Currently the True Finns and Blue Reform are both holding 17 seats in the Parliament. Third largest party in the Parliament in 2011 and second in 2015, the True Finns are now fifth in the latest polls and are likely to lose a couple of seats. Blue Reform will assumably see its number of seats decrease, especially after Timo Soini announced that he will not run for the elections, after 16 years as a MP. On its part, the Seven Star Movement is currently holding just one single seat and is not looking at any landslide victory. Though the resignation of Sipilä’s government is not likely to have a real impact, this unexpected turn of events does give upcoming parliamentary elections even more weight. 

[1] Finnish Nation First (Suomi Ensin), the anti-immigration movement now registered as an extra-parliamentary party since December 2018 is also running for the elections with a programme based on “closing the border for illegals and deporting those already here”. The polls are not indicating any vote intention percentage. 

References 

Keskinen, S (2016) From Welfare Nationalism to Welfare Chauvinism.: Economic Rhetoric, Welfare State and the Changing Policies of Asylum in Finland, Critical Social Policy. 

Moffitt B (2016) The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 

Muhonen, T, (27.3.2019) HS:n vaalikone aukesi: lähes kaikki puolueet ovat ottaneet askeleen vasemmalle, Helsingin Sanomat.

Ylä-Anttila, T, Bauvois, G and Pyrhönen, N (forthcoming in 2019) Politicization of migration in the countermedia style.