After four weeks of fragile talks, the far-right Finns party insists all other issues are off the table until progress is made – or not – on immigration and the environment.
While most of Finland was swept up by the country’s messy Eurovision entry during May, inside the gilded rooms of the Estates House in Helsinki, talks about forming a new government took place, without progressing quickly.
Behind the stout wooden doors of this ornate building in the heart of the Finnish capital, hundreds of elected politicians, party officials, civil servants and experts have toiled thanklessly to try to build cohesion between the four parties. These discussions have been split by heated arguments, finger-pointing and even social media gaslighting.
The main culprits have been the far-right Finns party, which seems to have the upper hand at the moment. This week they demanded that discussion on all other issues except immigration and the environment be put on hold. Their rationale: if the far-right Samlingspartiet (locally known as Kokoomus), which won the parliamentary elections in April, and the smaller Svenska Folkpartiet SFP/RKP capitulate to these biggest roadblocks, then they will have gained a huge win. Plus the rest of the program for the next four years of government will be much easier to negotiate.
“I think it was to be expected that there would be a heated discussion especially between representatives of the Finns Party and the RKP/SFP, as these are the two negotiating parties with probably the biggest ideological differences, especially in combination with a populist political style and political communication from the party’s side, explains Jenni Kärimäki, researcher in political history at University of Helsinki.
Kärimäki tells Euronews that it is also no surprise that the relatively inexperienced group of Finnish politicians did not change their usual communication style and aired their dirty laundry on social media, rather than keeping the discussions private.
“Many of them have a significant following online and they will continue to speak to that audience regardless of their status as MPs for a government negotiating party. Keeping in touch with your supporters is essential if you want to be re-elected by the government. same online audience in four years “, she said.
Negotiations between adversaries, not allies
Finnish political observers say these government negotiations are some of the most baffling they can recall in recent history. This is because the three parties that could form the core of a new government are simply incompatible on so many policy areas on paper.
While Kokoomu’s leader Petteri Orpo has been credited for his steady management of the talks, he appears to be pinning all his hopes of forming a government on getting the far-right Finns party to soften its stance on immigration – which their leader Riikka Purra has indicated that it just won’t fly – as well as in areas of EU policy and the fight against the climate crisis.
There is also a divide on a range of other issues, including how to deal with the government’s significant debt.
At the moment, the Swedish People’s Party seems to be playing a game of political chicken to see who blinks first: either the Finns Party abandons its long-standing red lines, or the SFP/RKP would throw out their own values-based beliefs. The latter have moved further to the left over the past four years as part of Sanna Marin’s government, particularly on immigration, international aid, combating climate change and keeping Finland very much part of the international rules-based order.
If either side capitulates, it would be a political earthquake in the Nordic nation.
The SFP/RKP in particular seems to be the odd one out in this possible coalition. It is not difficult to find party Finns who are against compulsory Swedish lessons in all Finnish schools, or who think that Swedish-speaking Finns – who make up about 5% of the population – are elites who traditionally have too much power. And it is not difficult to find fringe Finns who do not even believe that Swedish-speaking Finns are “real Finns”.
“I am not at all surprised by the clashes, but almost dumbfounded to find out why the Swedish People’s Party is still in the talks, and actually wants to be in government with the Finns Party”, says an SFP/RKP member and former Council of Ministers, who requested that do not be named.
Is there a bigger political game going on?
So could the whole negotiations be part of a bigger game for either the Finnish Party or SFP/RKP?
The Swedish People’s Party, which has been part of almost every Finnish government since 1980, was left out of the three-party government in 2015. They watched helplessly as institutions and programs that underpin the status of the Swedish language in Finland were defunded or scrapped entirely.
So they have entered these negotiations, perhaps rather than be left out again – despite being met with a whole host of nasty criticism from some MPs from the Finnish Party who lit the gas on them for being a “small” party, one that doesn’t deserve much to say in the formation of a government in the first place.
If the SFP/RKP withdraws from the talks, the formation of the government will most likely collapse, so in reality they have a lot of power.
“I think the leader of the Swedish People’s Party Anna-Maja Henriksson really means it when she says that we are not going into a government that runs the party’s partisan politics. But I don’t know how far she will bend that rhetoric to be able to fit in,” says the SFP/RKP member, and former ministerial adviser.
“She wouldn’t agree to stop taking immigrants completely, but maybe instead lower the quota for cost reasons or something, there might be compromises she can live with ideologically,” they add.
There is also the idea that the Finns’ party went into the negotiations with a list of cast-iron demands and no real intention of softening their core positions so that they can ultimately back down.
“The Finnish Party can say that we did our best, we defended our values and the others don’t see it this way so we stop,” explains Kimmo Elosenior researcher at the University of Turku Center for Parliamentary Studies.
“They can sell this to their voters as a victory. But what Petter Orpo fears a little is that they can turn this into growing support among the voters, especially if they are in opposition with the Center Party.”
And what about the Kokoomus themselves?
It has been suggested that they too went into the negotiations hoping that the Finns Party would give in on its immigration stance, but knowing that they might not.
– I think the most likely situation is that if Orpo says it won’t work with the Finns, they will replace them with the Social Democrats, says Elo.
“They would then have a traditional coalition and send a message to the voters, lessons learned, it will not work with the Finns party, because they cannot work with other parties to form a working majority coalition.
“The message is: you can vote for them but don’t expect it to work with them in government,” adds Elo.
What is the deadline for negotiations to end?
There are both internal and external pressures on the parties to reach an agreement over the border sooner rather than later.
At this time of year, Finnish politicians want to get everything ready for midsummer. It is almost unimaginable to imagine any politician sacrificing a weekend at the summer cottage, and the power of that vacation is a strong incentive to reach agreements.
There is also the European Council meeting at the end of June. Kokoomus will want a government team in place, with ministers and teams of advisers appointed, as a signal to Brussels and the rest of the EU that Finland is open for business and running smoothly.
There is a domestic pressure as well. A recent survey showed that only 8% of the Swedish People’s Party’s voters want to be in government with the Finns, and the pressure will build from their own supporter base. There are already cracks within the SFP/RKP, with more than one of their MPs taking part in the talks under duress.
“The people who are really upset are voters. Many of the members of parliament in southern Finland from the Swedish People’s Party will have voters and party members complaining if we go into government with the party Finnspartiet. There is already a lot of pressure on those members of parliament.”, explains SFP/ The RKP insider.
But at some point it needs proper and decisive leadership from Kokoomu leader Petteri Orpo. If the sides are still so far apart on big important issues and there is no progress, it may be time to kill this round of negotiations and then reconvene with a Plan B instead.
Again, either the Finns Party or the SFP/RKP could break first and give up their political red line positions.
But if they went into government together, big questions would hang over whether they could last the next four years as cooperative, productive stablemates.