By Emilia Palonen
Is it possible that a consensual democracy would polarise and how would that happen? In spring 2023, I was answering lots of calls from the international media, what is happening with Sanna Marin – will she lose power in Finland. This election campaign was most vocal as yet, with memes spreading of the feisty PM Marin confronting her prime contender populist radical-right Finns Party’s Riikka Purra. Now I expect to receive questions on the Finns Party, which is negotiating to be for the second time the second largest party in government, as the winner of the April national elections, Petteri Orpo of the National Coalition Party, is attempting to put together a right-wing coalition government. Finns Party has evolved less as an anti-elitist populist radical right (PRR) and more as an anti-migrant party with right-wing economic agenda. His options were to form a right-wing government with the runner-up Finns Party, and the liberal Swedish People’s party and Christian Democrats or try forming a Grand Coalition with the SDP and some others. He opted for the former. Left and right are back in Finnish politics.
Polarisation and populism
Ever since I returned from polarised Hungary to my native country Finland, I have been critical of the consensus model as well as polarisation. Channelling disagreement was not easy. Governments had always to include two of the three large parties. They knew to be civilized enough to each other as they would need to be able to collaborate sooner or later. In my analysis polarisation generates two sides where consensus operates (e.g. the Left and the Right) within to contain a distrust of the other. This deep distrust is based on the idea of the other being illegitimate to rule. Consensus and polarisation are two extremities which are almost identical. Consensus hides away the debate from within, disabling political confrontation and disagreement. Polarisation provides this in a dual mode.
Emergence of new parties to the spectrum of course enables generation of deep disagreement and distrust. With Juha Herkman we call this the fringe populist dynamic in our forthcoming book on the EP2019 elections. We recognise fringe, mainstream and competing populist dynamics. ‘Fringe’ dynamic challenges all other political actors- ‘Mainstream populist dynamic’ takes a position from the centre negating others in the margins for its raison d’être. ‘Competing’ denotes bi-polarisation of the central political camps. The idea of calling these dynamics ‘populist’ is not a relation to their far-rightism but addresses the logic of political articulation at stake. To certain degree populism is an inherent part of democracy, where these dynamics operate.
Furthermore, I learned from the transformation of Fidesz from a party of youth to a national-conservative party how populist antagonism and the tendentially empty us are maintained affectively loaded. Recently I have co-authored a piece that distinguishes populism from peopleism and nationalism. With Marina Vulovic, we argue that populist logic can be recognised in many places from “populist parties” to others. The idea of recognising its ‘form’ highlights populism’s anti-essentialist character. Instead of naming and detecting pre-defined contents, we propose that populism can be detected as a logic, where antagonism, ‘us’ building and affects play an important role. It enables us to observe change within the populist discourse.
Finns Party as a grown-up fringe contender
This fringe populism enabled the Finns Party, established in the mid-1990s on the foundations of the Finnish Rural Party, to emerge as a major political force in Finland. As we analysed with Liv Sunnercratz, the key difference between Scandinavian anti-taxation populist parties and the Finnish one was what they saw as the dominant hegemony: Finlandisation, implying the Soviet effects on policy in Finland (c.f. ‘post-Finlandisation’ and NATO membership). The Finns Party predecessor established in the 1950s moved from highlighting the antagonism towards the communists and Cold War politics as the ‘frontier’ concept and the Finnish refugees from Eastern Karelia as the ‘us’ concept to anti-migrant and nativist line. Later this paved a way to a more fluid confrontation.
The Finns Party’s initial success in the 2011 elections was predicated the discrediting of other parties in 2007 elections due to minor cases of election fraud. In a volume edited with Tuija Saresma we discovered they become a legitimate contender for the established parties even breath of fresh air in politics. We also accounted for the anti-migrant expressions and hate speech circulating the party. It was able to connect with semi-rural voters, disappointed with the Centre Party historically or by the failure of protecting them from costly grey-water regulations, with the emerging anti-migrant sentiments and welfare chauvinism. Anti-elitism was a key, hyped by the discussion of failure of political parties.
Anti-elitism also became a challenge to the Finns Party in office from 2015: their ministers were criticised and particularly the anti-migration wing of the party mobilised members to the party congress who took this wing to power. The previous leadership resented this – and particularly the coalition partners did: ministers left the party forming a new parliamentary group and a party, which was rather short-lived. The anti-migrant wing is now leading the Finns Party to a new government with the National Coalition.
A populist hype took also place prior to 2023 elections through media attention. For many supporters Finns Party has been affective precisely by bringing a new way of doing politics: the parliamentary group of the Finns Party is composed of several social media influencers, just as in the 2000s blogs took forward the party leaders Timo Soini and Jussi Halla-aho. Now, a challenge for the Finns Party is to keep these new generation of politicians in their ranks. Hybrid media systems that rely on attention seeking have paved the way for populist rhetoric and the way in which politics has become part of affirming identity through identification.
What about Sanna Marin?
Surely also the globally followed Sanna Marin would be affective enough to generate an affective glue? She achieved top-ratings but no overall election victory: the SDP only came third in the race. Strategic voting did no work well enough to make SDP the largest party, even if surveys estimate 25 percentage of their voters were voting strategically. Translation into seats generated through the regional constituencies was much worse than the overall vote nationwide.
The distinction between Sanna Marin’s popular perceptions in Finland and abroad are tied to the role of young women in Finnish politics: she does not stand out in the same way in the context where all party leaders in the government were female – young or middle aged. All of them had their own pretty tough line and expression.
What was specific about Sanna Marin’s politics prior to the elections was her confrontational approach. In January she declared the Finns Party racist and unfit for the same government with the SDP, adopting a populist logic of articulation. Her rhetoric, fitting for most European countries, in this predominantly consensual country was striking. SDP as one of the large parties had been ready for all coalition governments.
Bi-polarising election rhetoric to block politics?
Marin’s consistent strategy of talking about “the Left” had also made the Centre party in government uncomfortable. Needing to differentiate themselves from the rest of the five parties, to the extent that they were almost like played opposition in the government, strengthening the right-wing opposition’s voice. They declared that they would not step in the same government again. Admitting failure, it is not surprising that their support declined rapidly, further strengthening the National Coalition Party.
The right was boosted by a hegemonic articulation of the public debt as a problem by the Ministry of Finance. This polarised the debate. ‘Debt is bad’ resonates with Finnish homeowners, experiencing the rising interest rates in their personal economy. Anti-austerity rhetoric of the Social Democrats, Greens and the Left Alliance, on the other hand, relied on the idea that preventive welfare state services would be an investment for future. This did not travel as well enough for an election victory – especially as social and health services in the newly founded regional authorities did not demonstrate successful improvement in the status quo.
In May, as the PM candidate Petteri Orpo is seeking to form a coalition government of the right, the idea of confrontation is palpable. The election campaign has been polarised in the sense of that bi-polar hegemony where one side calls the other irresponsible and unfit to rule. Trust is sought within the two camps beyond the ideological or value preferences. Considering the Euroscepticism of the Finns Party and Europhilia of others this is a challenge.
Without considering the downsides of polarisation, many commentators have discussed block politics for Finland’s future. This would make the centre party and the tri-partite collaboration network redundant. The Finns Party as the new force may not be able to keep their fringe populist dynamic or support in an austerity government, but will it be able to achieve mainstream populism or shift the hegemony through moving their anti-migrant discourse into the National Coalition’s mainstream?
Emilia Palonen – BA (London), MA & PhD (Essex), dos. Senior University Lecturer in Political Science. Programme Director in Datafication (HSSH), Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki
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Source: Alice News