Fresh Fish, Helsinki, 2003
Political ferment isn't just restricted to the Arab world. There's a great malaise in the air, and it's manifesting in all kinds of ways, all over the place. In Finland, it's taken the form of a populist reactionary party. They call themselves Perussuomalaiset, which could be translated to Ordinary Finns, or Regular Finns, or Basic Finns.
The PerSut are led by a guy called Timo Soini. He's rotund, cheerful, a great talker, and quite sharp. The latest polls have pushed it into the top four parties in the country, each with around 20% support. Traditionally, our politics have been dominated by the Social Democrats, the Centrists (sort of like the German Christian Democrats), and the Conservatives. Now there are four, and it's even possible that Timo Soini might be our next prime minister.
I just checked out their electoral platform. Not much there to check, actually. It boils down to turning back the clock about 30 years but keeping all the good stuff since then. Long on gripes and discontent, short on detail. Your predictable mix of nostalgia, xeno- and homophobia, backwoods patriotism, that sort of thing. It would be very easy to poke fun at it. Lots of people already do, so I won't join that party.
The thing is, there's a reason for the PerSut. They didn't appear from nowhere, suddenly appealing to our basest tribal instincts or such. They express a very real discontent with our political system.
Finland consistently comes up near the top in all kinds of global good-governance lists. According to them, we among the least corrupt countries in the world, with among the highest media freedom, highest happiness, and so on and so forth. And you know what? Our system stinks too.
Our political class loves backroom deals and mutual backscratching just as much as anyone else. Our previous prime minister's idea of political discourse was that matters that haven't been decided yet shouldn't be discussed in public. There's a massive slow-motion scandal ongoing that's revealed how political parties finance their electioneering by circulating money in all kinds of shady ways. I mean sure, the scale isn't the same as in many other countries—we're talking tens of thousands of euros instead of tens of millions—but it's the same kind of show. A cynical way of looking at it is that our politicians are just that much cheaper.
Since our previous economic nightmare in the early 1990's, we've built a new country. Globalized. Networked. Big on information technology. Reliant on a comprehensively-educated workforce. Non-bureaucratic. Agile. In many ways, it's worked. We're more prosperous than ever. Our young people have more opportunities all over the world than ever, if they have the initiative to take advantage of them. We weathered the great 2008 economic crash pretty well, considering. We even won the Eurovision song contest once, dammit. Helsinki is a lot nicer place to live now than it used to be. Plenty of good restaurants with all kinds of international cuisine, lots of stuff going on. It used to feel like a Russian provincial capital; now it feels almost like a city.
But we've left people behind. They're the ones voting for PerSut.
When I was a kid, there were some pretty clear expectations for how your life would turn out. There were a couple of relatively straightforward trajectories to choose from. One such trajectory goes something like this.
You go to school. At the age of 16, when you come out our world-famous primary education system, you pick a trade and go to vocational school. By 19 or 20, you have a trade. If you're a guy, you do your military service. Then you get a job at the paper mill, or the machine shop, or the shipyard, or wherever. You get married, have a couple of kids and a Labrador, buy a Volvo and a little house, work until you're 65, take a nice vacation in Torremolinos every year, maybe get a summer cabin and a boat while you're at it, retire, enjoy about 15-20 years of that, die, and get buried in the churchyard.
This didn't pan out.
Most of these people do have jobs, for sure. Our unemployment numbers aren't particularly bad. What they don't have is the story they were building their lives around. So they haven't been laid off, but they might be, any day now. The house they wanted to buy is suddenly out-of-reach expensive, or the one they bought has suddenly tanked in value, or developed a mold problem, or something else. The old certainties are gone, and nobody helped them deal with that. Instead, the politicians have been beaming with their radiator-grille smiles (thinking of you here, Alexander Stubb) and building a brave new Europe where Finland is just a little backwoods somewhere. They've lost control of their lives, and nobody's been listening.
So we get the PerSut—an angry coalition of disillusioned trade unionists abandoned by the Social Democrats, of small entrepreneurs left behind by the Conservatives, of working-class men—mostly, men—feeling useless, with no prospects, and no control over their destiny.
I don't think the PerSut are going to last. Not in a recognizable form anyway. There are too many divergent streams in it to make a functional political party—the small entrepeneurs and the trade unionists are at odds about pretty fundamental stuff, for example, and compromise isn't a strong point of PerSu activists and supporters, which is why they're PerSu in the first place. They are, however, going to make a big splash in the upcoming parliamentary elections. After that, they'll get a shot at real participation in governance. We have pretty robust institutions. I don't think they'll be able to do much damage to them.
How long they'll last remains to be seen. They'll be doing fine as long as they're an opposition protest movement. Once they have to start making policy, they will lose many of their supporters, because they won't be able to paper over the cracks anymore. They will either fragment, be subsumed into the older parties, or find a smaller but sustainable and more coherent political base to operate from.
The PerSut are not the problem. The problem is that our system stinks, and that we've left behind far too many people. That these people have a way to express that discontent within the system is only a good thing. Revolutions are great, but I prefer evolution if there's a possibility for it. I won't be voting for them—hell, I don't know if there'd be a place for me in PerSu Finland to start with—but they do deserve respect. At the very least, we ought to be listening better.
Also, they want to raise the capital-gains tax and slap a progression on it. I'm with them there.