Populism is the “new normal” in Finland, the country’s likely next prime minister Antti Rinne said Monday, as experts warned that Europe’s fragmenting political landscape would bring more instability.
Rinne now faces the daunting task of trying to build a unified government coalition after voters returned the closest election result in Finland’s 101-year history.
Just one seat separates each of the top three parties, Rinne’s Social Democrats, the anti-immigrant Finns Party, and the conservative National Coalition Party.
In an interview with AFP, Rinne blamed the tight outcome on the sharp rise of the Finns Party whose anti-immigration campaign saw them more than double their seats in parliament.
“The situation has changed here in Finland the same way as in Europe,” Rinne said. “The populist parties have come to the game.”
The Finns Party’s strong score fractured the political playing field, with no party winning more than 17.7 percent of the vote — making it even more difficult to build a cohesive coalition.
Rinne will need to hammer out compromises between at least four or even five parties to obtain a majority.
Political expert Goran Djupsund said the outcome showed how rising populism across Europe was weakening political systems.
“A splintered political landscape makes it harder to build a government and nations become harder to lead,” he said.
“When populists win, the EU also becomes hard to govern… then no one cheers, with perhaps the exception of our neighbour to the east,” Russia.
Sunday’s polls were closely watched ahead of European Parliament elections in May when many believe nationalists and eurosceptics could make significant inroads.
Finland’s nationalist Finns Party is an established political force, having finished in the top-three in each of the past three general elections.
But this year, the party abandoned its more moderate eurosceptic agenda for a far-right, nationalist campaign under the leadership of radical MEP Jussi Halla-aho.
It concentrated almost entirely on immigration, urging people to “Vote for some borders” and pledging to reduce Finland’s asylum intake to “almost zero”.
The populists also decried the “climate hysteria” of other parties’ efforts to tackle global warming.
And although analysts said it looked unlikely the nationalists would be invited to join a coalition, Halla-aho said Monday he believed the wave of support for his policies would scare any future government into taking a tougher line on immigration.
“Of course (the other parties) are scared of losing voters to us,” he told Finland’s biggest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat.
“It would be quite strange if they didn’t take that into account in some way.”
Meanwhile, some migrants said they had already felt a shift in public attitudes.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, I was awake doing all the maths and working out what it would mean for people like me,” said Afghani-born Mohammad Javid, who grew up in Britain and moved to Finland four years ago.
Javid, a political activist, said he and other non-white friends had felt less welcome in Finland as the debate about immigrants and crime rose up the election agenda.
A series of highly-publicised alleged sexual assaults by migrants came to light in the run-up to the vote, sparking national outrage.
“When it was getting close to the election and those headlines kept popping up, you could sense that this is going to the fundamentals of people making their mind up about who they want to vote for,” Javid said.
Fake news claims
One striking feature of the Finns Party’s election success was the speed with which it rose in opinion polls from fifth place, where it had languished for around three years, to second within six months.
Some in Finland believe the rise has been helped by a steady stream of online material designed to radicalise public opinion, much of it traceable back to the Kremlin.
“Russia has ongoing years-long… fake news campaigns not tied to specific elections in different countries but which still influence people in a manner that can lead to impact in, for example, parliamentary elections,” said Jessikka Aro, a journalist specialised in Russian disinformation.
“We are seeing here in Finland at the moment, for example, fake news sites which are very extremist and which portray all asylum seekers as criminals,” Aro told AFP.
However Mikko Kinnunen, ambassador for countering hybrid threats at Finland’s foreign ministry, denied there was any direct outside meddling.
“When we speak of the election that now took place, we have not noticed any serious foreign interference or attempts to influence,” he told AFP.