Finnish government survives as new populist faction emerges

Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila (R) and Finance Minister Petteri Orpo (L) announce the dissolution of the governing coalition on 2 June. The next day, the coalition was resurrected. [Kimmo Brandt/EPA]

Finland’s government avoided collapse yesterday (13 June) after Prime Minister Juha Sipila said his coalition could carry on with a new populist faction which emerged when an anti-immigration party split in two.

Sipila, who has headed a coalition made up of his Centre Party, the conservative National Coalition and the Finns Party since May 2015, on Monday (12 June) ousted the Finns Party after it elected hardliner Jussi Halla-aho, convicted of hate speech, as leader.

Sipila had planned to submit his government’s resignation to the president on Tuesday in order to get a mandate to seek out a new coalition partner.

But in a surprise move, 20 of the Finns Party’s 37 members of parliament announced they were breaking away to form a more moderate faction, called New Alternative, which was willing to govern in Sipila’s coalition.

“I propose that the government coalition continues with the New Alternative parliamentary group… The group has decided to support the current ministries and the current government programme as well as unfinished projects,” Sipila said.

Pilot PM flies back

Sipila, a millionaire businessman and an avid pilot who occasionally flies himself on government business, had already flown from Helsinki to the president’s official summer residence outside the southwestern town of Turku when he heard the news.

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He promptly cancelled his meeting with the president and flew himself back to Helsinki.

The parliamentary groups of the Centre and conservative parties still need to formally approve Sipila’s proposal, who told reporters late Tuesday that parliament would hold a vote of confidence on the government coalition in the coming days.

Sipila’s Centre Party, the conservatives and New Alternative have enough seats between them to form a majority in parliament.

The five Finns Party members currently serving in the government have all joined New Alternative, including Timo Soini, who co-founded the Finns Party in 1995.

Halla-aho, 46, replaced moderate Soini, who led the party for 20 years until he stepped down on Saturday.

Halla-aho said he was surprised and disappointed by the scope of the defection from his party.

“I had expected that one or a few MPs could make that decision (to leave the party), but I could not have anticipated such a big defection,” he told reporters.

“It doesn’t feel good.”

The head of the conservative party, Finance Minister Petteri Orpo, had been adamant that the Finns Party under Halla-aho’s leadership had to leave the government.

“Human dignity is the foundation of Western democracy,” Orpo said on Monday.

“Elastic couldn’t be stretched”

Sipila, Orpo and Halla-aho had met on Monday to see if they could find common ground on which to govern together.

But it was soon clear they would not be able to collaborate, especially on the subject of immigration.

“All decisions are based on values, but compromises are needed when there are three parties in the government. The elastic couldn’t be stretched any further to accomodate Halla-aho,” Sipila said late Monday.

“The new leadership’s view of justice, equality, human rights and so on are not the same as the Centre Party’s.”

Heavy price

For the Finns Party, participation in the three-party coalition has come at a heavy price.

Its support has almost halved from 17.7% in the May 2015 general election to 9.0% in a poll published Thursday by YLE.

A member of the European Parliament, Halla-aho, a father of five and a former lecturer in mediaeval languages, has said he wanted to steer the party further to the right and push for tougher immigration policies.

His star has risen in recent years, in part because of his explicit writings against immigration and Islam.

In 2012, Finland’s highest court upheld a conviction and fines against him for inciting ethnic hatred and blasphemy in a 2008 blog post where he criticised Islam and made offensive remarks about Somalis.

Earlier this year, he demanded that the European Commission penalise civic organisations which rescue migrants from drowning when their ships founder in the Mediterranean.

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