The Finns Party was founded in 1995 as the True Finns and has its roots in the anti-establishment Finnish Rural Party. The party evolved from ultraconservative views to far-right anti-immigration and anti-EU positions. Today it is an ally of the French National Rally and the Italian Ligue parties.

The Finns produced an electoral surprise in 2011 when they received 19.1% of the votes and the third position in the Finnish parliament. Since then, it represents a significant factor in Finland’s politics although it remained mostly in opposition – it had been a coalition government’s partner only in 2015-2017. The far-right remained in opposition for twenty years until 2015, when their participation was necessary for a coalition government.

The rise of radical right populism in Europe during the last decade, the evolution of the party towards the far-right with the relative rhetoric, and its solid electoral base make the Finns an interesting case from an EU perspective and a political science approach.

European Interest discussed with Dr. Thomas Karv a wide range of themes concerning the nature of the party and its constituency, the meaning of the election of his first female leader, its success among youth, and its tolerance towards anti-vax partisans. Dr. Karv, a Researcher at the Institute for Social Science Research (Samforsk) of the Åbo Akademi University in Finland, is an expert in democratic backsliding, specifically and populism more generally, especially within a European context.

European Interest: The Finns party gradually has moved away from the ultra-conservative positions of the early 2010s to the alliance with the hardcore far-right family, the Identity and Democracy Group in the EP, which includes the parties of Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini. Considering that the party has its origins in the Finnish Rural Party of the 1960s and 1970s – which had anti-establishment or anti-elite views – how do you explain the persistence and even increase of populist right wing views in Finland?

Thomas Karv: The Finns Party have managed to establish themselves as a viable alternative for the dissatisfied citizens in Finland, which largely explains their rise. Furthermore, the party over time has incorporated several policy positions attracting voters, such as global-warming scepticism, Euroscepticism and anti-immigration. Hence, if you are a Finn disappointed with the political developments in Finland in general, or within these three areas specifically, the Finns Party might seem as the only real alternative. It is thus clear that there are many dissatisfied citizens also in Finland.

It is also true that the Finns Party has its origin in the anti-establishment Finnish Rural Party, but we also need to remember that the Finnish Rural Party was a party that only once got over 10% in a national election and that it was never an influential part of the political system. The Finns Party of today is, however, something almost completely different in comparison with the Finnish Rural Party of the 1970s.

Still, I would not say we have witnessed an increase of, what you refer to as, populist right wing views in Finland. I would instead argue that we have seen a development during the last decade where citizens holding for example Eurosceptic, nationalist, xenophobic or global-warming sceptic views have started to concentrate their votes and thus helped the Finns Party to become an influential actor in Finnish politics. With that being said, among the actual supporters of the Finns Party there seems to have been some kind of radicalization taking place during the last decade.

Contrary to the party’s expectations, last Summer’s municipal elections didn’t result in an electoral success. What were the reasons for this reversal? Do you think it is temporary?

It depends on how you measure success, but I agree that the general perception following the municipal election was that the Finns Party underperformed. Still, if we look at the actual result it was their best municipal election result ever. I would therefore not say there has been any kind of reversal in their electoral fortunes, as the party always tends to have difficulties with transforming their level of support in polls into actual votes during election. When the turnout is low, it affects the Finns Party disproportionally as their supporters are the most difficult to mobilize, and this is especially a problem for the party during the more low-key elections. We saw the same phenomenon happening during the EP-elections in 2019, when they lost around four percentage points in comparison with the result from Parliamentary elections held six weeks prior.

According to a survey conducted in 2020, the Finns party enjoys considerable support among the young population. Why does it have better penetration than the other political parties among the youth? Are social media the main vehicle in this, as happens with other far-right parties in Europe?

Well, it is no secret that political parties with clear policy positions seem to attract the young voters. It is therefore no surprise that surveys repeatedly show that the Green League and the Finns Party are the two most popular parties among the younger electorate in Finland. In comparison with the more traditional centre-right and centre-left parties in Finland, the young think they know what they will get with the Green League and the Finns Party. It is also true that both of these parties have a considerable presence in the most popular social media platforms, and combine that with a clear message about their respective key-issues you have a recipe for popularity among the Finnish youth.

We have seen a development during the last decade where citizens holding for example Eurosceptic, nationalist, xenophobic or global-warming sceptic views have started to concentrate their votes and thus helped the Finns Party to become an influential actor in Finnish politics

There is evidence that the Finns party has a higher percentage than other parties, of followers who have little or no trust in institutions and science and are keen to be influenced by conspiracy theories spread through social media. If this is true, does it depend on the social level of the party’s electoral base?

It is true that supporters of the Finns Party tend to express lower levels of trust in various political institutions, which generally holds for most citizens supporting anti-establishment parties. In terms of the social backgrounds of their electoral base, it has actually become more diversified over time. With that being said, the main part of their supporters are still male and from various working-class backgrounds. If these factors make the supporters of the Finns Party more susceptible to becoming influenced by conspiracy theories spread on social media I do not know, but I would expect citizens with lower levels of education to be more susceptible to conspiracy theories in general.

The Finns party is a “male” party even if, since 2015, it tries to allow space for female members. The party avoids using gender terminology and is anti-feminist. However, the party has elected a chairwoman last August. According to her statements, the new president, Riikka Purra, is a hardliner, same as the previous leader Jussi Halla-aho. How do you explain this movement? Is this compatible with the traditionalist image of women promoted by the party? Or should we expect changes in the party’s gender approach?

Even though Riikka Purra is indeed the first woman to be elected as party leader, this is not the first time a woman has been pushed by the party. The clearest example is perhaps Laura Huhtasaari, a current Member of the European Parliament, who was chosen as the party’s presidential candidate for the 2018 Presidential election. Her status has also continued to grow since then, and if she had wanted to, my guess is that she would have been elected as party leader instead of Purra.  If this is a deliberate tactic within the Finns Party to push more women into leading positions I cannot say, but my guess is that they have rightly identified women as a group of voters where there is much growth potential. Still, I do not think we should expect any significant changes in the party’s gender approach just because there is a woman elected as leader, and Riikka Purra has also signalled that she wants to continue on the same road set out by her predecessor Jussi Halla-aho.