Finnish Democracy Is on the Brink

Finnish Democracy Is on the Brink

Finland is vulnerable to the same threats that confront democracies across the EU—the popular appeal of nativist parties, polarized political discourse, and cyber-bullying of minority and female politicians.


Last week, a noose and an unprintably racist message were delivered to a Muslim lawmaker. The target wasn’t Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, as you might well have imagined, but—shockingly—Suldaan Said Ahmed, a first-term member of the Finnish Parliament. “This repulsive act is only part of the racist feedback and harassment I’ve faced during my time in politics,” said Ahmed. “I thought it was important to show what it’s like also publicly. This is what people still have to face in Finland in the 2020s. I want to work to make sure no child has to face anything like this in the future.”

On those rare occasions that Finland makes international news, it’s because the country has been coronated, four years running, as the happiest nation in the world. Breathtaking nature, job security, cradle-to-grave social supports, high levels of trust in government, world-class gin—what’s not to like, except the long, dark winter?

Last summer, normally quiescent Finns were outraged by the revelation that the Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s family received an €850 ($985) monthly allowance for breakfasts and cold meals. “Breakfastgate,” as the press dubbed it, prompted irate citizens to demand that Marin resign, claiming that the supposed scandal eroded “social trust.” The police launched an investigation.

Breakfastgate was a silly-season story, media-manufactured outrage when there was nothing else to report. But the racism aimed at Ahmed is just one example of the political trouble that lurks backstage in this Nordic paradise. Finland is vulnerable to the same threats that confront democracies across the European Union—the popular appeal of nativist parties, polarized political discourse in social media, cyber-bullying of minority and female politicians and trolling tailored to disrupt the government. Far-right groups are using video games to recruit teenagers, and a neo-Nazi organization lurks on the fringe.

The Finns Party is the nation’s hyper-nationalist party, kissing cousin to Marine LePen’s National Rally in France and ideologically like-minded parties across Europe. The party is a major political force. In the 2019 national elections, it came within 0.2 percent—that’s 7,500 votes—of winning a plurality. It has become the most popular party among 15–29 year olds.

Immigration is the Finns’ calling card. While the percentage of immigrants in the country is smaller than in most Western European nations, the party opposes “detrimental immigration.” Ban the burqa—keep out Somalis and Iraqis; boot out asylum-seekers, tarred as drug traffickers and terrorists.

Far to the right, the Finnish Resistance Movement (FRM)—virulently anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-gay—dreams of installing a Hitler-style dictatorship. While its membership is small, it has done more than its share of damage. Members have beaten up immigrants, attacked participants in gay pride and anti-racism demonstrations, defaced synagogues, and vandalized the Israeli embassy.

Finns Party members have a wink-and-nod relationship with FRM. In a Facebook post, a Finns member of Parliament praised an arson attack on an asylum-seekers’ reception center that was doubtlessly carried out by neo-Nazis. Several thousand sympathizers turn out to cheer the white supremacists’ annual Helsinki march, which the Finns promote.

The Finns’ anti-immigrant message resonates in a nation where discrimination, although widespread, goes unmentioned. In a 28-country survey of first- and second-generation immigrants and ethnic minorities, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights determined that (aside from Luxembourg) discrimination was most prevalent in Finland. A report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance found that “racist and intolerant hate speech in public discourse is escalating; the main targets are asylum-seekers and Muslims.”

Since 2019, the Social Democratic Party, which supports LGBT adoption rights and the increased funding for public universities, and advocates for the country to become oil-independent by 2030, has been the largest in the Parliament. But the chair of the conservative National Coalition Party, which is favored to win the 2023 election, made the unprecedented announcement that his party was ready to bring the Finns into the governing coalition. That’s an unsubtle nod to nativism in a country where, when surveyed, more than half the populace said they would be uncomfortable with a Romani neighbor and about 40 percent that they would be uneasy if a Muslim or asylum-seeker moved in.

Meanwhile, a NATO report detailed how Finland’s female-led government has been targeted by a massive social-media hate campaign triggered by far-right staples—Covid regulations, immigration, Finnish-EU relations, and left-leaning politics. Prime Minister Marin shrugged off the report with characteristic aplomb. “Girl government, lipstick government, pantyhose government, Tampax Team. Yes, women lead the government. Get over it,” she tweeted.

What is happening in Finnish cyberspace goes well beyond misogyny. Social media trolls have made life a misery for many politicians. Half the members of Parliament report that they have been the targets of hate speech and more than half that their work has consequently suffered.

Municipal politicians, especially young female candidates, are also under siege. When surveyed, two-thirds of them said that they are barraged by invective. The targeted politicians have grown less willing to participate in debates that have disintegrated into mud-wrestling matches.

This venomous environment is sidelining potential candidates. Nearly a third of those whom the Social Democrats and the Greens asked to run for local office, many of them young women with promising political careers ahead of them, said no. In previous years, they would likely have accepted the invitation, but they refuse to enter a world defaced by hate speech.

During the run-up to last summer’s municipal elections, posters of competing slates of candidates that displayed the smiling photos of scores of hopefuls were plastered everywhere. While that signals a robust democracy, voter turnout was the lowest in nearly 80 years, and the Finns made gains across the country. In a nation of great social rest, no one is sounding the alarm—not yet, anyway.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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