As Finland’s April elections draw nearer, the country’s tiny foreign population finds itself the focus of debate, with the anti-immigrant, nationalist True Finns party expected to make runaway gains.
The party has catapulted to popularity thanks to its affable, charismatic leader Timo Soini and its “Finns-first” message, seen by many as xenophobic in a country where immigrants make up just 2.9% of the population. “Immigration is a problem and not a solution,” Soini has argued in television debates.
Although the party won only 4.1% in the last elections in 2007, a recent surge in popularity saw it register 16.2% support in one January opinion poll published in Finland’s daily of reference Helsingin Sanomat.
But the party cannot quite shake off the taint of racism. A small fringe group of the party, led by Helsinki city councilman Jussi Halla-Aho, has published an election manifesto blasting multiculturalism. Halla-Aho was convicted last year over blog comments linking Islam to paedophilia and saying that Somalis are pre-disposed to mugging people and living on the dole.
The True Finns’ leadership, however, plays down Halla-Aho’s influence. “Every party has these young radicals,” says founding member Raimo Vistbacka, a member of parliament since 1987. Vistbacka insisted that official party policy, while sceptical of immigration, was not extremist or xenophobic.