Monday, April 18, 2011

Democracy in Action

Shame On You Parties
Shame On You Parties

I'm not drunk. Just depressed.

I love democracy in principle. It can just get really depressing to see it in action. Yesterday was one of those elections. You might've heard about it, it was on BBC, Financial Times, the NYT, and Russian media too.

The international commentary mostly gets it a bit wrong, though. No surprise there; it's not exactly worthwhile to keep experts on Finnish local politics on call, most of the time. Here's a bit of clarification about who these True Finns are, and what their landslide victory means, and what a landslide victory actually is about under the Finnish system.

First off, True Finns is a mistranslation. The nuance is wrong. A closer translation of the party's name would be Basic Finns, or Regular Finns. It doesn't have the connotation that those who aren't True Finns aren't true Finns. So calm down, they're not quite the Nazi Party. They have neither the discipline nor the ideology. They're actually a grab bag of people who only really agree that the current political parties stink and that the EU bailouts are a waste of money and unfair to boot.

I kinda tend to agree with them on those counts. Kinda.

Their nasty side is that the party ran a quite a few relatively nasty candidates, and when called out, says "Oh, but it's their personal opinions, not the party line; we can't thought-police everybody." Be as it may, they included at least one Holocaust denier, and the party has a strong fraction that's mostly running on an anti-immigration platform, some just this side of racist, some clearly over the line. In fact, the most depressing feature of the election was the massive support the figurehead for this group, one Jussi Halla-aho, got.

But does that make the True Finns the Nazis reincarnated, as the BBC portrays them in an uncharacteristically sloppy article? No. American Republican Party rhetoric with its open Islamophobia and coded anti-Hispanic and anti-black racism is a good deal nastier than even Halla-aho and his clique. Never even mind our home-grown European crypto-Nazis in a variety of countries.

But somehow, "not quite as bad as the Republicans" and "not really a Nazi" is... unsatisfying. Halla-aho does represent a nasty strain in Finnish society.

Democracy's a bitch, though. Even the nasty strains have the right to be represented, if they can get the votes.

The appeal of the True Finns isn't really about policy. Their policy statement is deliberately vague and a bit silly. It's about resentment, and not resentment driven by privilege. This was a revolution of silent men, as one commentator put it. Thing is, the many political parties in our system have left those silent men behind. There's just nothing for them there.

There's the National Coalition, with our foreign minister Alexander Stubb their iconic representative. I can't not like Alexander Stubb. He's just so damn likable, with his likable stunts, like referencing Angry Birds in his electioneering, or, rather more ballsily, the time he put his face on the Finnish version of the "it will get better" video campaign—you know, the one intended to cheer up LGBT teens struggling with their identities. I have a feeling he really meant that one, and it was far from a risk-free vote-winner. Stubb is the most popular kid in class. The one who's great at sports, looks out for everybody, stars in the school play, gets the Mr. Congeniality award from the teacher, is every mother's dream son-in-law, and makes sure the school party is creative, fun, safe, and everybody has a great time.

Pity about his unabashedly regressive tax policy.

Then there are the bleeding-hearts, the vegans, progressives, artists, musicians, revolutionaries. They get to drink red wine and smoke thin cigarettes and occasionally something else, and get all the hot hippie chicks. The smart and bohemian set who piss on consumerism and the idea of a Volvo and Labrador and house, but somehow most of 'em end up with them anyway.

And somewhere to the side, there are those guys who always get overlooked. A little slow. A little pudgy. The ones who only talk when spoken to, and then not a whole lot. The ones who'll grow up to sit on a porch in their track suits, waiting for the sauna to heat up, drinking Karjala beer straight from the can.

They have nothing in common with the cosmopolitan marathoner with his chromium smile, or the bearded lefties, queers, and greens, or the church lady, or the Swedes, or even the suddenly-urbanized sold-out-to-business wheeler-dealer Center Party apparatchiks. Nothing.

Now they voted, many for the first time, for the guy who's also a bit pudgy although not at all slow nor silent, with the football scarf, who articulates what they grumble to each other over their beers on that porch. They're not bad people, nor is he.

So, the deal.

Yeah, it was a landslide. They got 19.1% of the ballot, and are now the third-biggest party in Parliament, only a hair behind the Conservative National Coalition and the Social Democrats.

It's good to keep in mind, though, that 80.9% of the electorate didn't vote for them. It's also worth remembering that they're the most opposed party: if we had been allowed to cast "nay" votes, they would've been somewhere around -5%, and the biggest loser of the election, the social-conservative Center Party would've come out on top. More or less.

So, this is nothing like, say, a Republican landslide in the US, or a Conservative one in the UK, where the winning party really gets to call the shots.

What it does mean is some very interesting politics. We need a governing coalition. The obvious one is a combination of the National Coalition (blue), Social Democrats (red), and True Finns, for a BlueRedNeck coalition. The problem is that the blues would have to flip on their tax policy, or they won't get the reds and the necks to play along, and the necks would have to flip on the Portuguese bailout, or the blues won't play along. Something like that anyway. So there's a good chance that that won't work out. And even if it does work out to start with, the True Finn parliamentary group is a bunch of loose cannons that would very likely start shooting in every direction at the first sign of trouble, and could very well bring the whole thing down.

But if it does work out, things could go kinda OK. The Reds and the Necks would give us a nicely progressive tax program, and the Reds and the Blues would keep us from getting totally sidelined in Europe.

The alternative is a narrower majority with some pretty weird combination of parties, possibly including the big loser of the election, the Center Party. I can't see the Left Coalition happily governing with the National one; they're just about as far from each other as it gets. That'd very likely mean a sequence of short-lived governments falling to no-confidence votes, with not a whole lot getting done. Not good.

The burning issue on the table is the Portuguese bailout. If Finland votes against it, it'll get blocked. This could trigger a cascade of rather nasty events, which in the worst case might end up plunging the world economy into another recession and even finish off the Euro. If Finland abstains, it could go ahead without us; we're a small economy after all, but the abstention would certainly cause more resentment in those countries that would end up picking up our burden.

And it doesn't exactly help that it turns out that Greece is using eight billion euros of their bailout money to buy German tanks and fighter planes. Where's our share of the filthy lucre, dammit?

As a friend of mine put it, "no matter who you vote for, the government always gets in."


  1. You'd think that, but look at Belgium ... No government for a year. Maybe you're heading that way too.

  2. Possible, but unlikely. The divisions in our society don't run that deep. Lots more stuff will have to go wrong before they're there. Leaving the True Finns out of a governing coalition and letting them harden into a permanent, loud, powerful, and unpredictable opposition would be a good start on that path.

  3. Thank you for your insight into the elections and Finish politics. It is difficult to get an accurate picture from the international news.

    As Portuguese, I don't think a Finish refusal to the bailout will be so negative. It might finally convince the ECB to lend money directly to states, instead of lending to banks at 1% and let them recoup the obscene profits. But I also don't agree with the reasons presented to refuse a bailout. Corruption, misuse of public money are of course rampant, but they have always been, and are not the causes of the present debt. The debt is mostly caused by the reduced fiscal revenue because of the financial crisis. And also the lack of political courage and vision that allowed Portugal to insist on a cheap labour industry, when many other countries could do cheaper. In any case, not mainly an issue of mismanagement of funds. The analogy with a family that spends more than it earns is just plain dumb.

  4. That's true. National economies aren't like families or like corporations, and a lot of dangerous nonsense gets spread around by treating them as such.

    Consider today's post a longer reply to your comment, by the way. It started out as that but got a bit out of hand...