What are we like?

4 February 2011 | Non-fiction, Tales of a journalist

To be, or not, a true Finn? Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

Elections are coming: what will the vox populi, the voice of the people, dictate? And which people will be deciding Finland’s political future? As columnist Jyrki Lehtola reports, a political debate has arisen about the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ sort of pollster – and the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ kind of Finn

Finland will be holding parliamentary elections in April. We’ve been organising them every four years, like clockwork, for the past two decades, a rare example of stability in a parliamentary democracy. Finland is the European Union’s model student, and the differences between our main political parties are nearly pro forma (who wouldn’t want to protect nature? who wouldn’t want better health care?), so elections in recent years have been more like an endearing tradition than significant, world-changing events.

However, this year everything is different. The upcoming elections have forced us to look in the mirror – and we aren’t liking what we’re seeing.

We have a problem. Some of the candidates for the upcoming elections are the wrong sort of people, who have the wrong sort of view of the world.

This has always been the case to some degree, but until now we have always been able to shrug off these ‘wrong people’ as a single-issue movement made up of freaks dealing with unresolved daddy issues. Now, dismissing these wrong sorts of people is significantly more difficult, because public opinion polls are telling us that as many as 16 per cent of Finns are ready to look themselves in the mirror.

These wrong sort of people make up a party named Perussuomalaiset (‘True Finns’, until now approximately three per cent of the Parliament), a uniquely descriptive name for a party that is full of true Finns.

And exactly what are ‘true’ Finnish people like? Just as we’ve always feared: negative people for whom the only acceptable change is change that means a return to something that used to be. They don’t want anything living next door or in their back yards that wasn’t there 20 years ago. No immigrants, homosexuals or people who aren’t true Finns. Their attitudes toward feminism, abortion and Europe are those of a man who, having eaten and drunk too much, is now lost in the past.

And Europe? Oh no! They hate Europe. They don’t want to help any of the European countries who have got themselves in a fix. They want to give up the common currency and return to the Finnish mark, because, in to their memory, when we used the mark, there weren’t any economic problems. They want out of Europe – to close the borders and sulk in front of the television in their long johns. And even the TV programmes are the wrong sort.

As a party, they represent the negative view of life. The only thing they don’t regard negatively is the idealised Finland of the past.

And they have nearly 16 per cent support. They could easily end up in the next coalition government, and that possibility is problematic for both the other parties and the media to handle.

The True Finns’ party chairman is the jovial Timo Soini, an extremely skilled populist who gives the negativity of true Finns the face of an easy-going teddy bear as he beams through his beads of sweat.

The media have tried to explain away the popularity of the True Finns as being a result of their party chairman’s charisma, in order to avoid facing the more awkward possibility. That awkward possibility is that… well… we Finns aren’t really like that, are we?

Our Turku is this year’s European Capital of Culture, and our Helsinki is next year’s World Design Capital. The True Finns probably don’t even know how to spell or pronounce ‘design’ in English.

We are a liberal, civilised state. Newsweek loves us and our educational system. In the autumn we resigned from the Lutheran church en masse when it was revealed that the church’s attitude toward homosexual unions was neither open nor approving.

We embrace diversity, we vacation in Europe, we are the EU’s star pupil, always the first to implement even the most ridiculous EU regulations. We recycle, we bicycle, we appreciate African art, we love local food and we try to keep our carbon footprint as small as possible. We are a responsible, liberal, civilised people. We always have been. How is it possible that 16 per cent of us would vote for a party whose candidates seem to represent everything that is so foreign to us?

And that is precisely the media’s problem with to the True Finns. The irritating thing about the True Finns is that they are so… so… Finnish, and we don’t want to have to deal with too naked a portrait of ourselves.

And now the True Finns are suddenly a significant political force – evidence that we have failed to turn a significant portion of our nation into model European citizens; and what’s worse, they seem to be proud of their prejudices and negativity.

But we can’t say that. We can’t admit that we Finns are just that, true Finns. Our whole idealised self-portrait project would fall apart in our hands.

That is why we try to turn the True Finns into an anomaly, an interesting, exotic minority, and we in the media have always taken the side of downtrodden minorities, because minorities are cute like baby kittens.

But now the downtrodden minority is actually that rather large part of the populace who don’t care about any other minorities than themselves. And they don’t resemble kittens at all. They resemble us Finns.

How vexing.

Translated by Owen Witesman

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