They call themselves the True Finns: down-to-earth, hardworking people who love their country but feel neglected by its political elite.
They’re tired of bailing out southern Europeans who lived beyond their means. And wary of Somali, Iraqi and other immigrants who are slowly reshaping the homogenous nation of their forefathers, the tenacious Finns who halted the advance of the mighty Red Army during World War II.
Overnight they’ve redrawn the political map of this Nordic country and caused a major headache for European countries negotiating a bailout package for debt-ridden Portugal.
“The shoveling of money to other countries has to stop,” said Tuula Kuusinen, a member of the nationalist and anti-immigration True Finns.
Stopping Finland’s participation in bailouts for Portugal and other cash-strapped economies in the eurozone, the 17 European countries using the euro as their currency, was a core issue for the True Finns in the election campaign.
Why should orderly Finland, they asked, help out “squanderers” like Greece, Ireland and Portugal?
The party finished third in Sunday’s election, but their dramatic increase from six to 39 seats in Parliament means the vote-winning conservatives are obliged to invite them to talks in forming a new coalition government.
Conservative and pro-euro leader Jyrki Katainen will likely try to make the True Finns soften their stance on bailouts, but their leader Timo Soini showed no signs of relenting on Monday.
“Our money mustn’t be splashed out on mechanisms that don’t work,” Soini said. “Finnish cows must be milked in Finland and we shouldn’t send their milk for charity outside the borders of this country.”
If the talks with the True Finns fail, the conservatives will have to seek other coalition partners, including the Social Democrats, who also are skeptical about eurozone bailouts.
Either way Europe can expect Finland to be become a less enthusiastic member of the eurozone, in the midst of a debt crisis that has led to rescue packages for Greece and Ireland and the one being negotiated for Portugal.
If Finland pulls out of that deal, tentatively supported by the outgoing government, other countries might be able to make up for the lost guarantees but that scenario is set to run into opposition in other well-off states like Germany, the Netherlands or Austria, where sentiment against the bailouts also runs high.
Apart from the popular backlash, a rescue without Finland would severely undermine the eurozone’s pledge to defend the common currency and could create panic on financial markets.
The True Finns call for restricting immigration, which they fear is eroding the welfare system, and boosting defense spending. The 800-mile (1,300-kilometer) border with Russia reminds them of two bitter wars against Stalin’s army that killed 27,000 Finnish soldiers and nearly 10 times as many Soviet troops.
In the election, the True Finns espoused the cause of the remaining 50,000 World War II veterans.
“We have a debt of honor to the veterans,” said Toni Paussu, a 40-year-old party member. “Without them there would be no Finland.”
A soccer player in his youth, the heavyset Soini sees himself as the voice of the people, an underdog fighting the political establishment. But he’s hardly an ordinary Finn.
Soini is Catholic exceptional in a country where 80 percent belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church and most of the remainder is not religiously affiliated. He shies away from discussing his faith, insisting it is a private matter.
His plain-talking rhetoric has a lot in common with populist right-wing groups that have made gains across Europe. But he treads more carefully when it comes to immigration, saying foreigners are welcome if they come to work and pay taxes instead of taking advantage of Finland’s generous welfare system.
Other party members are more outspoken, like Jussi Halla-Aho, a controversial political blogger once charged, but acquitted, with incitement against an ethnic group for comments he posted online about the Prophet Muhammad.
“Immigrants who come here to work, who have a decent business to come here, they are of course welcome,” Halla-Aho said on election night. “We want to limit immigration that is harmful from our national point of view, I mean from our economic point of view, from the social point of view and so on.”
Finland’s population of 5.3 million is relatively homogenous. Less than 5 percent of residents were born abroad, according to the official statistics agency. The proportion of foreign-born is three times bigger in neighboring Sweden.
Jad Lian, a 29-year-old from Lebanon who moved to Finland four years ago, said he was shocked and disappointed by the strong gains for the True Finns. He hasn’t experienced hostility from Finns, but he worried about a hardening attitudes toward immigration.
“They should think also: who’s going to drive our buses, and who’s going to clean our streets in the major cities?” Lian said. “And when they look outside the window at night, they will see who are doing these jobs.”
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