Finns, tired of austerity, go to the polls

HELSINKI: Finland votes Sunday (Apr 14) in a general election in which the centre-right government looks set to be toppled after four years of cuts, while the far-right is predicted to make large gains.

The far-right Finns Party, led by hardline MEP Jussi Halla-aho, have seen a surge in support in recent months during their anti-immigration dominated campaign, urging people to “Vote for some borders”.

The Social Democratic Party challenger, headed by Antti Rinne, leads both of Finland’s main opinion polls at around 19 per cent.

It campaigned against the austerity implemented by the Centre Party Prime Minister Juha Sipila and his Finance Minister Petteri Orpo, leader of the conservative National Coalition Party.

Jussi Halla-aho's far-right Finns Party has urged people to "vote for some borders" Jussi Halla-aho’s far-right Finns Party has urged people to “vote for some borders” AFP/Vesa Moilanen

However, polls suggest the Social Democrats’ lead has narrowed in recent weeks to as little as two points ahead of both the National Coalition and Finns, which are neck-and-neck in second place.

At a rally on Saturday in Myyrmaki, a disadvantaged suburb of the capital, a crowd of people young and old clamoured around Halla-aho, asking for autographs and congratulating him on the Finns Party’s campaign.

“You will be the next prime minister,” one woman assured him.

Forecasts suggest that no party is likely to draw more than 20 per cent of the vote, meaning the result could be historically close.

If so, this will make negotiations to form a governing coalition particularly difficult, not least because the major parties have all expressed strong reservations about joining a government with the Finns Party, whose policies took a further lurch to the right after Halla-aho became leader in 2017.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

Finland has a rapidly ageing population and declining birth rate, and the question of how to fund the country’s generous welfare state in future has been a key election battleground.

As part of his anti-austerity manifesto, Social Democrat leader Rinne, a 56-year-old former trade union boss, has pledged to improve conditions for Finland’s elderly with a 100-euro (US$113) monthly pension boost for retirees on low incomes.

Yet the Social Democrats admit that this promise, estimated to cost 700 million euros a year, may prove impossible to fulfil if economic conditions are not favourable.

Despite finally emerging in 2016 from the post-financial-crash downturn, many economic forecasts suggest Finland’s GDP growth will slow in the coming years.

Yet after four years of spending cuts under the current administration, there is little appetite among the public for further belt-tightening.

“People are saying enough is enough with some of the cuts,” political commentator Sini Korpinen told AFP.

“For example the cuts the government has made to education have been very much criticised because education is something that we in Finland very much treasure.”

Last month Prime Minister Sipila dissolved his Cabinet after failing to steer through parliament a long-fought plan to reform the country’s health and social care system.

That means Finland goes to the polls under a caretaker government, a move which was derided as a political stunt by Sipila’s opponents. His Centre Party currently languishes in fourth place in the polls, having recently been overtaken by the Finns Party.

POPULIST SURGE

Immigration has also become a hot election topic, despite Finland being western Europe’s most homogenous country with a foreign-born population of just 6.6 percent.

In January, outrage over highly publicised reports of a string of alleged sexual assaults by foreign men led to a surge in support for the Finns Party, who have pledged to drastically cut immigration and tighten asylum rules.

In the wake of the alleged assaults, which are still under investigation, parties across the political spectrum swiftly vowed to crack down on migrants who commit crimes.

“The Finns Party has had an effect on the way that we speak about immigration,” political commentator Sini Korpinen said.

“Other parties are being very cautious about their stand on immigration issues because they fear their support will bleed to the Finns Party.”

Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila of the Centre Party has presided over four years of austerity Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila of the Centre Party has presided over four years of austerity AFP/Martti Kainulainen

The Finns Party party has also denounced the “climate hysteria” of Finland’s other major parties and says citizens should not have to pay for any more measures to combat climate change.

Whatever the outcome of the election, there is likely to be little impact on the eurozone member’s stance in the EU, as all main parties are staunchly pro-Europe.

Even the eurosceptic Finns Party does not advocate leaving the European Union altogether, though they do want to see some reform of the bloc.