by Dr. Niko Hatakka (University of Birmingham)
During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Finns Party (PS) appeared an outlier amongst European populist radical right parties. The PS’s initial response to the Finnish government’s actions to contain the virus were unitary, consensual and moderate.
As the pandemic persisted, however, the party seemed to be finding it more difficult to avoid becoming an organisational vehicle for the contestation of mainstream views on COVID-19.
Whereas the PS initially only focused on the pandemic’s economic impact, arguing in favour of welfare nationalism, budget discipline and what it saw as the protection of Finnish national sovereignty, now the party has started to express resistance towards the measures the government has adopted to curb the rate of infection, too.
Hence the party opposed the introduction of Digital COVID Certificates by arguing that their use would closely equate to “mandatory vaccinations”. The arguments used in parliament were similar to those advanced by party leadership candidate Ossi Tiihonen, who gained the support of an unexpectedly high 14 percent of the vote in the recent party leadership election by running a COVID-focused campaign.
COVID-19: a catch-22 for the Finns Party leadership
The perception that the Finns Party is at odds with the scientific consensus or opposed to vaccination could put the party’s regained legitimacy at risk and cause discontent among many of its members. On the other hand, as in early 2021 only about half of PS supporters were willing to get vaccinated, alienating vaccine-sceptical voters could also harm the party’s polling.
Perhaps in response to these limitations, the party’s leadership has adopted an ambivalent stance towards tackling the pandemic. Hence they have stressed that “the Finns Party is not a corona party, and the party does not follow a specific corona line”. Ex- party leader Jussi Halla-aho also stated in the party’s paper that “people do not agree [on COVID-19]…, meaning it is impossible for the party to fulfil conflicting hopes and demands.”
To be clear, the party’s leadership has not sponsored vaccine-scepticism nor has the party officially supported non-compliance with government guidelines. Indeed, the party leadership has gently encouraged party activists to trust experts and science and has implicitly supported the government’s strategy of obtaining herd immunity via vaccination. Also, as a way of putting clear water between the PS and the emerging anti-vaccine movement, the party executive has expelled one of the party’s MPs, Ano Turtiainen. Turtianinen had – amongst other things – defied the party’s leadership by refusing to wear a mask in parliament.
Still, apart from the most extreme and conspicuous cases, the Finns Party’s leadership has allowed its politicians and members to discuss the pandemic as they see fit.
Perceived as an ally of controversial online movements – again
The Finns Party’s online presence comprises mainly de-centralised communications by individual politicians, members and supporters. Despite the party lacking in online message control, the PS’s engagement and perceived affiliation with COVID-19-related conspiracy theories or vaccine scepticism remained initially tenuous.
During the first wave of infections in Finland, there were no large demonstrations against public health authorities’ restrictions and recommendations. Unlike in Germany for instance, there was simply no pre-existing public discourse, movements, or platforms for the Finnish radical right to co-opt and to engage in protest with.
This – combined with the party’s initially pro-consensus stance – largely discouraged Finns Party activists and supporters from participating in or sympathising with COVID-related protest actions.
During later waves, however, this has changed. Individual PS politicians and activists appear to have contradicted the party’s consensual line on social media by, for example, questioning the motivations behind the vaccination campaign and by sharing disinformation about the pandemic. Also, as the party’s heightened oppositional rhetoric in parliament has shown some similarities with the claims made by Finland’s emerging online anti-vaccination movement, this has led other parliamentary parties to accuse the PS of flirting with COVID-denialism,
This situation is reminiscent of the late 2000s, when the Finns Party first became scrutinised and critiqued for providing a platform to nativist online activists and movements. Later on, nativism mainstreamed as a core element in the party’s ideology.
Waiting it out may backfire
Due to the significant formal and informal power of the party executive, and the party’s regular top-down communications with members, the Finns Party’s leadership could attempt to pre-empt or at least slow down a hardening of the rank and files’ views on COVID-19. However, enacting disciplinary measures or demanding stringent message discipline on the topic would cause undoubted bad blood within this fast-growing party and cause some members to seek new political homes elsewhere – for instance in the emergent Power Belongs to the People movement.
It cannot be foreseen for how long COVID-19 will remain a political signifier and point of division in Finnish and world politics. The Finns Party seems settled upon a strategy of waiting whilst leaving their door ajar to individuals for whom contesting the government over Covid-19 is a stimulating and worthy political pursuit.
However, the longer this persists, the more difficult it will be for the Finns Party to avoid becoming – in former leader Jussi Halla-aho’s words – “a corona party”.