Vasarahammer offers a keen insight into the history surrounding the rise of a now defunct party, and what rose in its place. It’s a thoughtful look into a rarely discussed subject, at least in English, and well worth the read. KGS
Vasarahammer: When I noticed this piece about the Danish ”populist” politician at Gates fo Vienna, I immediately thought I could write one about Finnish anti-establishment parties. While the party of Glistrup protested against high taxes, the Finnish anti-establishment parties were generally against Urho Kekkonen and his way of dealing with the Soviet Union.
Perhaps the best known, most colorful and most influential Finnish populist politician is Veikko Vennamo (1913-1997), who founded the Finnish Rural Party, the predecessor of the current Perussuomalaiset (True Finns) party.
In the years after the Second World War, Finland was still largely an agrarian nation. The growth of the manufacturing sector started in the post-war years and continued further during the later decades. During the postwar years Vennamo was working in the Ministry of Agriculture as the head of ASO (Department of Settlement Issues) responsible for settling the refugees from the territories ceded to the Soviet Union as well as war veterans and families of soldiers killed in the war.
The goal of the resettlement program was to prevent any civil unrest and possible communist uprising by giving the refugees and war veterans (roughly 400 000 people in a country of 4 million) a small farm or a property of their own. This program turned out to be very successful and made Vennamo very popular among the settlers. It also serves as a model of how the problem of Arab refugees should have been dealt with when the state of Israel was created, but that’s another story.
At the same time another ambitious politician, the future president Urho Kekkonen was climbing towards power. Vennamo served as Minister of Finance during Kekkonen’s 1954-56 goverment, but the two broke up after the 1956 presidential election. Vennamo, then serving as an MP for the Agrarian League, did not like the heavy-handed way Kekkonen ousted the party leadership and replaced them with people loyal to him.
In terms of foreign policy, Vennamo and Kekkonen did not see eye to eye, since Vennamo saw the death of Stalin in 1953, as a sign of future weakening of the Soviet superpower status (how right he was!). Eventually, Vennamo resigned from the Agrarian League and founded a party of his own, the Finnish Small Farmers Party.
Rural Party under Vennamo
Vennamo remained as a sole MP for the party until the Finnish Rural Party scored a landslide victory in 1970 election and got 18 MPs out of 200. Vennamo’s party relied on the “forgotten people” of the countryside for its success. The party was, however, completely unprepared for such success and it split up two years later and the breakaway faction formed a short-lived Finnish People’s Unity Party.
Vennamo blamed outside forces for the breakup, which has a ring of truth in it. At that time, state support for political parties was initiated and the amount each party was given depended on the number of MPs. It can be argued that the breakaway faction was partly tempted by the state support, from which Vennamo coined one of his most famous phrases ‘seteliselkärankaiset’ (people with a greenback spine). However, Vennamo’s authoritarian style of leading the party, as well as the heterogenous party base, also played a significant role in the breakup.
The Finnish Rural Party during Veikko Vennamo years was a one man show. The party was sometimes mockingly called “Sirkka, Minä ja Pekka” meaning Vennamo’s wife Sirkka, Vennamo himself and his son. His wife Sirkka was responsible for some of the most popular slogans used by the party (which, unfortunately, do not translate very well).
During his political years Vennamo was a consistent critic of the authoritarian leadership and Soviet-leaning foreign policy of president Urho Kekkonen. In addition, he managed to become a spokesman for the people living in the rapidly emptying countryside who were ignored by the three main parties.
Rural Party under Pekka Vennamo
While Veikko Vennamo was a skilled and charismatic orator, his son Pekka did not possess such qualities. This is why it was expected that the Finnish Rural Party would fade after the withdrawal of the charismatic founder from the leadership.
Pekka Vennamo, however, proved the sceptics wrong in the 1983 parliamentary election, in which Rural Party captured 17 seats. The success paved the way for the party to the Social Democrat led government headed by Kalevi Sorsa. The success of the Rural Party was mostly due to some high profile corruption cases involving business leaders and leading politicians. Vennamo’s party used the catchphrase “rötösherra” to describe top business and political leaders involved in corruption.
The Rural Party, however, faded by the end of 1980’s mainly due to internal strife. Eventually Pekka Vennamo accepted a political nomination as the head of the Finnish Post and Telecommunications Authority, which decreased the popularity of the party even further. By the middle of the 1990’s the party was bankrupt.
Georg C. Ehnrooth
While Georg C. Ehnrooth’s Constitutional People’s Party (later the Constitutional Right Wing Party) never became politically as significant as the Rural Party, it deserves a mention. Ehnrooth belonged to the right wing of the Swedish People’s Party (the party of the Swedish-speaking Finns), but left the party after the Swedish People’s Party decided to support the special legislation for extending Kekkonen’s presidential term in 1973.
Ehnrooth can best be characterized as a patriotic anti-communist, who opposed Kekkonen because of the Soviet-leaning foreign policy. Unlike Vennamo, Ehnrooth was genuinely pro-Western and pro American politician at a time, during which that kind of policy was considered politically incorrect and anti-Soviet. Ehnrooth was also one of the few openly Israel-friendly politicians in Finland, but his party failed to make a lasting impact in Finnish politics.
Timo Soini and True Finns
True Finns party was founded in 1995 on the ruins of the Finnish Rural Party. The party is led by a long time Vennamo protege Timo Soini. Under Soini, the True Finns have steadily grown and got four per cent of the vote in the last general election.
Soini’s folksy charm and Vennamo-like slogans have made him the darling of the media. However, Soini is by no means a typical far right politician with anti-immigration views. The True Finns Party is nationalist and openly critical of EU but has not marketed itself as an anti-immigration party, even though Soini insists that immigrants must adapt to the Finnish society instead of the other way round.
Under Soini’s leadership, candidates critical of immigration policy have found their way to the party. In addition, the party has attracted new candidates that do not correspond to the stereotype of a generic malcontent of the past.
The True Finns recently managed to get 5,3 per cent of the vote in the municipal election, which attracted the attention of the media and which also increases expectations in the next general election of 2011. But Soini must be careful to keep the party together in the height of success in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past.