Trump Rhetoric Is Taking Root in the World’s Happiest Country

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump-style populism has spread to Finland, where the world’s happiest people are set to show their displeasure at immigration and the mainstream’s obsession with climate change in Sunday’s general election.

The Finns Party, a nationalist movement that has adopted slogans which echo the U.S. president’s “Make America Great Again,” has surged from sixth to second place in the polls.

Like in neighboring Sweden, right-wing extremists may end up depriving the traditional blocs of a majority, complicating plans for the formation of a new government just as Finland prepares to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union.

“There are various coalitions that are possible without the Finns, who aren’t especially wanted in government,” said Laura Nordstrom, a researcher at the University of Helsinki. “But if the talks become deadlocked, that could make them kingmakers.”

Discontent with the policies of incumbent Prime Minister Juha Sipila has also fueled support for the Social Democrats, who are holding on to a narrowing lead and are likely to take the first stab at forming the country’s next government. Their leader, Antti Rinne, has said he would find it difficult to work with his colleague Jussi Halla-aho, who caused the Finns to split after taking over the party’s helm in 2017. Halla-aho is a vocal critic of the EU, multiculturalism and environmentalism. The soft-spoken academic has also come under fire for inciting hatred against Islam.

Finnish opposition to immigration shot up in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, when the number of asylum seekers, mostly from Iraq, jumped almost nine-fold. Sipila, who famously offered his home to a fleeing family, has since became a poster child for what many say is uncontrolled immigration. Resentment at foreigners was stoked again this year following reports that several refugees had been arrested after being accused of sexually abusing children. Just 7 percent of people living in Finland were born outside the country.

“It’s a global and European phenomenon: parties that offer clear ideologies are benefiting,” said Kimmo Gronlund, a politics professor at Abo Akademi university. In Finland, immigration has been a major topic of the election campaign, and the Finns are clearly profiting from this, he said.

Trump Rhetoric Is Taking Root in the World’s Happiest Country

Elisabet Parviainen, a 69-year-old pensioner from Helsinki, said she would vote for the Finns because “they take care of the Finnish people first.”

The party, which had its first big victory in the 2011 vote, is also profiting from what it describes as growing frustration at the liberal elite’s perceived obsession with global warming. The party argues that Finland shouldn’t damage its industry by seeking to reduce emissions more than other countries.

But discontent with the Sipila government goes well beyond those issues. Although the millionaire premier successfully restored the economy (Finland was not long ago considered the “new sick man of Europe”), he has done so at a price. The imposition of tougher conditions for unemployment benefit, as well as a labor market reform that has forced people to work more for less, have proved particularly unpopular.

With 36 percent of eligible voters having already cast their ballots in advance, polling stations are due to open at 9 a.m. local time and close at 8 p.m. Sunday. Results are expected by midnight.

The most likely outcome is a Social Democrat-led coalition with the center-right National Coalition of Finance Minister Petteri Orpo, the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.