The West’s First Climate Election Leaves Finland Deeply Divided

Vice Chairman of the Green League Maria Ohisalo (C) celebrates with party supporters at the Greens' election party in Helsinki, Finland, after the first exit polls results were announced on April 14, 2019. - Finland's leftist Social Democratic Party is in the lead with 19.0 percent of the vote, after 37 percent of votes have been counted in the countrys general election.

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Why you should care

The Nordic country has its first left-leaning government in decades, but right-wing populists are rising as well.

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WHAT TO KNOW

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Chairman of the Finnish Social Democratic Party Antti Rinne waits for exit poll results in Helsinki, Finland. His side was victorious, but he expected a bigger winning margin. 

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What happened? On Sunday, 72 percent of Finnish voters turned out to elect new leaders, handing victory to the country’s leftist Social Democrats for the first time in 20 years. It was a tight race. The progressives — one of Finland’s many parties — won just 17.7 percent of the vote, with xenophobic populists from the Finns Party trailing only slightly at 17.5 percent. The ruling Center Party, which has lost popularity with the introduction of austerity measures, is forecast to come in fourth.

Why does it matter? Finland is the latest in a series of sharply divided European governments, resulting in slim majorities and hard-to-form coalitions. Meanwhile, populist parties are looking ahead to this spring’s European elections, where they hope to make inroads not just with anti-immigration policies, but with staunch climate skepticism — a position tested out, with relative success, by the Finns Party in Sunday’s election. It was dubbed the first “climate election” in the West.

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

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Erna Solberg, the conservative prime minister of Norway.

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A more political climate. When Social Democrat leader Antti Rinne gave his victory speech, he listed “sustainable climate, social and economic policies” as the incoming government’s priorities. For the first time in a major developed nation, the climate was a defining issue, particularly for Rinne’s reinvigorated party. Greenpeace is calling Sunday’s contest the “climate election” in a country with a third of its land area located above the Arctic Circle. The Greens Party, hoping to make the nation carbon-neutral by 2030, had its best results ever with 11.5 percent of the vote. That’s compared to 3.2 percent for Norway’s Green Party in 2017, and 8.9 percent for the German Greens that same year. But the issue cuts both ways, with the right-wing populist Finns Party, which ended up just behind the Social Democrats, opposing tougher emissions curbs as harming industry, and consequently workers. 

Nordic roots are showing. While right-wing parties have been on the rise across Western Europe, that trend seems to have hit a wall in the left-wing heartland of Finland and its Scandinavian neighbors. Sweden and Iceland have left-of-center prime ministers, while Denmark’s Social Democrats are leading in polls for this summer’s elections. A conservative coalition continues to govern Norway, along with an anti-immigrant party. Such a coalition is unlikely in Finland, where every other party has forsworn joining up with the right-wing populist Finns Party — a shunning similar to that faced by the like-minded AfD party in Germany. In Finland, where ultra-progressive ideas like universal basic income have taken root, the leftward shift is seen as a reaction to austerity programs of the Center Party’s governing coalition.     

Nothing but a number. Finland’s not just dealing with climate change and immigration. Like many other European states, the country is concerned about its aging population — prompting the Social Democrats to campaign largely on reforming the welfare system. It’s a project that didn’t work out well for the Center Party, which a month ago saw its government collapse and prime minister resign over an inability to make reforms work.

Next steps. Fresh off its second-place finish, the Finns Party will join fellow populists from Germany, Italy and Denmark for next month’s European Union elections, in which they will challenge immigration, social and environmental policies. Working together, populist leaders hope they can control the bloc by outnumbering centrists. But that harmony may be short-lived, as the populist parties don’t all align even on issues like immigration. Their alliance, therefore, could easily crumble. 

WHAT TO READ

The Right’s New Rallying Cry in Finland: ‘Climate Hysteria,’ by Ellen Barry and Johanna Lemola in the New York Times

“Finland’s general election has broken a well-established pattern in northern Europe, where one political cycle after another has been powerfully defined by the issue of immigration.”

The Man Who Would Be Finland’s Next Prime Minister, by Leo Laikola in Bloomberg

“Social Democratic leader Antti Rinne may now have to appeal to his inner diplomat if, as polls suggest, he’s to succeed in pushing through tax and public spending increases at the helm of a governing coalition that will likely have to include parties from both the left and the right.”

WHAT TO WATCH 

Social Democrats Claim Narrow Win Over Populists in Finland Election

“Dear friends, I have to say that honestly I expected a better result.”

Watch on France 24 on YouTube:

Italy’s Salvini: ‘We Are Working Towards a New European Dream’

“Today for many citizens, for many people, the European Union represents a nightmare, not a dream.”

Watch on the Wall Street Journal:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Equality now. While Finland is already better at including women in its halls of government than most nations, Sunday’s election nearly achieved parity in its 200-seat parliament, with 92 women winning seats — nine more than in the previous election in 2015. Finnish women’s issues have even found their way into U.S. politics, with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, a Republican, suggesting last month via Twitter that Finland was “skimping” on caring for new moms. She was immediately countered by Helsinki’s U.N. envoy, who pointed out that Finland has the lowest maternal mortality rate in the world. American mothers are four times as likely as Finnish moms to die during childbirth.

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