Finland’s Neoliberal and Far-Right Alliance Is a Sign of Things to Come in Europe

In Finland, a new government represents how compatible neoliberal and far-right politics are. The Left must answer the challenge by opposing austerity in addition to racism.

Finns Party chair Riikka Purra (left), National Coalition Party chair and now prime minister Petteri Orpo, and Swedish People’s Party chair Anna-Maja Henriksson address a press conference where the four-party cabinet released the details of the governing agenda in Helsinki, Finland, on June 16, 2023. (Kimmo Penttinen / Lehtikuva / AFP / Finland Out via Getty Images)

Finland’s new government had been in power for less than two weeks before entering into crisis. Vilhelm Junnila, the new minister of economic affairs, from the nationalist Finns Party, turned out to have had a history of far-right signaling, including jokes implying affinity toward Adolf Hitler. In a tight vote of confidence, he didn’t even get the support of all the new government’s ministers and resigned in disgrace a few days later.

Junnila is not the only controversial politician in his party. Many other Finns Party MPs have been convicted of ethnic agitation. The party’s ideological leader Jussi Halla-aho, now the speaker of the Parliament of Finland, once wrote about his desire for foreigners to rape several left-wing and liberal female politicians. The new finance minister — Finns Party leader Riikka Purra — got her start in politics by commenting on Halla-aho’s online guestbook in 2008, making a bevy of racist statements about immigrants.

Still, it is not the Finns that are in the driver’s seat. They are an accessory to this government, playing second fiddle to bring neoliberalism and austerity to a new level, a local variation of a model that is being replicated across Europe.

A Government of Austerity

The administration is spearheaded by the National Coalition Party, the political wing of Finnish capitalism, led by Prime Minister Petteri Orpo. Originating as a conservative nationalist party in 1918, after the ’90s the party presented itself as a modernized home for cosmopolitans, environmentalists, and liberal feminists — so long as they agree with an economic agenda of privatization, deregulation, tax-cutting, and pro-corporate policies as a solution to the country’s ills.

This new government’s program certainly represents this agenda, including personal fines for workers on wildcat strikes, restrictions on sympathy strikes, and making the first day of sick leave unpaid. Exceptionally, the government is choosing to interfere in the wage-setting process itself, decreeing that no unions should be able to negotiate general wage contracts where the wage raises are set by the export industries.

It’s clear that the new government is trying to provoke a clash with the labor movement — and with other institutions of the welfare state. In addition to an anti-labor agenda, the new government’s list includes a “6+3” model of austerity — €6 billion this parliamentary period (four years), €3 billion for the next. This is enabled by wide-ranging health and welfare cuts, including strict means-testing of several benefits such as the income support, the last-ditch benefit meant strictly for the poorest citizens.

Previously, the National Coalition has often found itself governing with the Social Democrats, the party of the previous prime minister, Sanna Marin — whose scandals revolved more around throwing parties than racist comments. Such blue-red grand coalitions have traditionally been used to deregulate and make policy based on the interests of businesses, but with moderation and with the unions — connected by the hip to the Social Democrats — on board.

Those days are past. While the Left is all too familiar with the idea of social democracy destroying itself by allying with the Right, the neoliberals have also chafed in such coalitions. In their view, no matter if they get their desired reforms and cuts through, it is never enough. Cooperation with the far right offers them a new method to implement their agenda. Even many in the National Coalition’s liberal wing have found it easy to cosign a restrictive immigration agenda and a rundown of Finland’s ambitious climate goals in exchange for neoliberal economic goals.

Nationalist Agenda

The Finns Party has taken part in government once before, from 2015–2017. This ended in a farce. As the anti-immigration hard-liners led by Halla-aho took over, the other parties unceremoniously booted the party off, and the Finns’ moderate faction split off to trundle into the political graveyard.

The modern Finns Party exists to have fewer immigrants from the Middle East and Africa in Finland. To reflect this, it managed to negotiate several anti-immigration points to the government’s program — higher income limits for immigrant workers, citizenship rules tightened, quotas for refugees from refugee camps slashed. The message is clear, both to potential migrants and party voters: immigrants are not welcome here.

The party’s focus on immigration has increasingly been joined by an austerity-oriented economic policy that only differs from the National Coalition in detail. In the end, the party can justify everything to its most hard-line supporters with a simple credo: it if leads to “left-wing tears,” it is all good.

As such, it has been as easy for the Finns Party to partner up with the neoliberals as the other way around. The Finns Party has even implicitly dropped its opposition to EU membership — still mentioned in the party’s programs, but something that the party leadership has promised not to advance while in government.

As far as the other major international issues — support for NATO membership and Ukraine’s war effort — are concerned, the new government will continue the old government’s policies, though this is a topic on which all parliamentary parties in Finland agree.

Many of the party’s new voters, however, expect a material benefit from their vote. Chief to the Finns Party’s robust performance in this election was its cheap promises to bring down the cost of living (still felt keenly even after the electricity crisis has abated), particularly fuel prices. The government’s program holds no promise that this will be done, and many of the cuts and the anti-labor legislation will hit the party’s working-age, middle-income, small-town voter base.

Liberal Agony

The government negotiations also included two smaller parties. The Christian Democrats, a small socially conservative party, did not push signature issues like abortion or opposition to trans rights, satisfied with a mere seat at the table.

The Swedish People’s Party (SFP), the only party in Marin’s government to continue in the new one, was another matter. Formed to defend the interests of Finland’s Swedish-speaking community — 5.2 percent of the population — the SFP often has also portrayed itself as a party that cares about minorities and the environment.

Participating in government with a nationalist party has not been easy for the SFP. Still, what characterizes the SFP, above everything else, is fierce pragmatism, and bringing down these negotiations might have jeopardized its stature — and it still shares the same neoliberal commitments as the National Coalition.

In general, the SFP’s agonies reflect the superfluous nature of the liberal-conservative split. Even in questions like immigration, the liberal arguments often focused on the economics, privileging bringing in cheap labor over concentrating on asylum seekers and presenting the latter case in terms of potential for drawing in other immigrants. Such an instrumental view often de-emphasizes human rights, including the right to asylum.

Likewise, on environmental questions, liberal politicians spent far more time on whether the formal governmental goal of carbon neutrality by 2035 would be preserved than on the actual environmental measures — which essentially reflect simply following the Finnish pronuclear consensus and not doing much else.

It is still possible that the liberals will eventually consider the Finns Party to be too toxic to stand. All SFP ministers voted against Junnila in the confidence vote, and after Purra’s racist statements surfaced, the party’s liberal stalwart Anders Adlercreutz, the minister for European affairs, wrote a blog entry indicating that the party considers the government’s future to be on a knife’s edge.

Still, in the end, the liberal opposition often boils down to a concern over image. Adlercreutz, too, praised the government’s economic agenda, but expressed — in addition to well-placed fears over human rights — his concern over the Finns Party destroying Finland’s image abroad, particularly leading to a weakening potential for investments. Such contradictions could still be smoothed over, should enough will exist.

The same tensions apply to some opposition parties. The Finnish Greens have selected a new leader who, while criticizing the conservative nationalist tendencies of the government, has simultaneously given support for parts of the anti-labor legislation. They, and the Centre Party – the rightmost party in Marin’s government – have tried to walk a fine line between condemning the government for its most egregious affairs, but also taking care to not appear too divisive.

The Socialist Response

Much of the initial post-electoral period for the Left was characterized by apathy, as supporters of Marin’s government kept hoping for something to bring the government down before it could even be formed. However, this slumber is ending; at least the first demonstrations against the new government have already been called due to the far-right scandals.

The wedge between the liberal desire to maintain Finland’s progressive image and the nationalist desire to get implicit approval for far-right statements is easy to exploit, and certainly the mainstreaming of racially charged and hostile rhetoric cannot be allowed to continue. Such efforts already forced Junnila’s resignation and Purra’s apologies for past comments, no matter how facile.

It is always possible that the government’s current internal tensions will bring it down before it could start doing real damage. Still, in case they do not, it is better to prepare for a longer struggle — one that revolves around the government’s actual agenda, not the day-to-day churn of scandals.

The government’s line is a shot across the bow to the labor movement, and the potential response could make the 2015 one-day general strike pale in comparison. The support of the Left to the unions will be crucial in the field of public opinion. Likewise, once the effects of austerity start rolling in, many people will suddenly notice the impact of cuts falling on their local schools, day cares, and health care units. Fighting for local services in the small towns and suburbs where left activists live will be equally important in this field.

The government may consciously try to test the boundaries of the Finnish constitution. The constitution, which came in force in the 2000s, was a shining star in the era mostly characterized by neoliberal policies, codifying the basis and the logic of the welfare state. The constitution is also a potential obstacle to much of the Finns Party’s immigration policies, as its fundamental basis includes international human rights agreements, in addition to the welfare state model.

All of this has importance beyond Finland. In neighboring Sweden, center-right parties now rely upon parliamentary support of the far-right Sweden Democrats — not directly a part of the government, but more influential than the Finns Party. In Spain, similarly, the center-right is pondering going to government with the anti-immigrant Vox party.

The fate of the Finnish coalition will serve as a useful barometer for the future of the marriage of austerity and far-right social views — and an indicator of the workability of such an arrangement for future purposes. Year by year, the gap between the liberal and nationalist right in Europe grows smaller. Answering this challenge is a crucial task for the Left across the continent.