The racism scandals rocking Finland

The executive of the Nordic country is trying to overcome the crisis caused by the xenophobic comments made by several ministers in the past

Carlos Torralba
Finnish Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Finns Party, Riikka Purra, on July 13 in Brussels.Thierry Monasse (Getty Images)

Neither the war in Ukraine, nor climate change nor inflation: racism has been the central issue of political and media debate this summer in Finland. The government of the Nordic country, the most right-wing in its history, has been plunged in crisis since its formation at the end of June. The crisis has been triggered by racist comments made by several far-right ministers, one of whom has links to neo-Nazis groups. The comments were made in the past, but have come to light in recent weeks, pushing Prime Minister Petteri Orp’s four-party coalition to the limit. The scandals have also damaged the international image of a country considered a benchmark in equality, education and transparency.

“If we had been aware that such clearly racist language had been used in the past, we would not have entered the government,” said Education Minister Anna-Maja Henriksson, who is the leader of the Swedish People’s Party of Finland (RKP). In a bid to address the crisis, the four parties in government — the National Coalition Party (NCP), the Finns Party, the Christian Democrats and the RKP — announced last Thursday that they had agreed to a plan of 23 measures that will be debated next week in Parliament.

The measures include punishing discrimination against ethnic or religious groups in the workplace, a program to “fight hate speech,” criminalizing Holocaust denial and “studying the possibility” of banning the use of Nazi and Communists symbols, such as the swastika and the hammer and sickle. “For the RKP, whether or not to remain in the coalition depended on this pact. With this statement, it is clear that we are not going to tolerate racist attitudes of any kind,” said Henriksson.

Vilhelm Junnila was the first member of government to be caught in the eye of the storm. The politician has never hidden his links to xenophobic and neo-Nazi groups. As a deputy in the previous legislature, he was the main speaker at several events of the Nordic Resistance Movement, which was banned in 2020, and invited several of its members to a session in the chamber. In the electoral campaign for the April parliamentary elections, the far-right politician joked with references to the number 88, a figure that means Heil Hitler in neo-Nazi symbols.

After the first wave of opposition criticism, Junnila refused to resign and was able to survive a vote of no confidence. But less than 48 hours later, he was forced to step down due to a scandal that erupted over a Facebook post. In the post, Junnila said that he was still in favor of Finland encouraging “climate abortions” in Africa as a means to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, he supported abortions, so that there would be fewer people on Earth polluting. It was a plan he had even raised in Parliament four years ago.

The Christian Democrats, minority partners in the coalition government, tolerated Junnila’s neo-Nazi ties, but not his ideas to reduce birth rates in African countries. Under pressure from the five Christian Democrat deputies, Junnila was forced to resign as economy minister, a post he only held for 10 days. This makes him the second shortest-serving minister in the history of Finland. He is also the only minister to have shared photos of swastikas on social media, and to have posted a photo of a snowman with an obvious resemblance to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. After being expelled from the government, the Finns Party named him vice president of the parliamentary group.

“Spitting on beggars and hitting Black children”

The relative calm lasted for a few days, but was broken when racist comments made by Deputy Prime Minister Riikka Purra came to light. In a 2008 blog, the first woman to head the Finns Party wrote: “Anyone feel like spitting on beggars and hitting Black children today in Helsinki?” Purra apologized on social media for her “stupid comments from 15 years ago” and for “the damage they may have understandably caused,” but insisted that the media had “taken them out of context.” She claimed she was the victim of a “a witch hunt” and that the media treated the Finns Party — the second-biggest group in government — “as criminals.”

A few days later, other comments made by Purra made headlines. In this case, the statements were made in 2019 on her personal website, just before she was elected to parliament for the first time. Of the comments that were published in the media, the one that made the biggest impact involved the far-right leader ridiculing Muslim women in burqas. “Unidentified black sacks walk through the metropolitan area of Helsinki and can only be recognized as people because they usually drag children.” Almost 30 Finnish Muslim organizations issued a joint statement demanding her resignation.

Finnish foreign minister, the conservative Elina Valtonen, also had to apologize to her Turkish counterpart for the numerous times in which Purra referred to Turks as “monkeys” online. “I conveyed to [Turkish Foreign Minister] Hakan Fidan my apologies for the inappropriate comments made years ago by a member of the new government,” she said following a recent meeting in Brussels.

In the wake of the criticism, Purra has said that she has no plans to resign and that “neither the party nor its proposals on immigration, are racist.”

In choosing Junnila’s successor as economy minister, Orpo tried to ensure that there was nothing online or in archives that could characterize the new minister as racist. Even so, shortly after Wille Rydman’s appointment, the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat published messages that he sent seven years ago to his then girlfriend. In one of them, he referred to immigrants from the Middle East as “desert monkeys.” In another, he ruled out buying lilies as decoration because “they multiply and spread like Somalis.” Rydman refused to apologize for his comments, and instead criticized that his private messages were published without his consent.

The Finnish parliament returns next week after the summer recess. In addition to debating the anti-racism plan, several opposition parties will present no-confidence votes against Purra and Rydman. Despite the agreement reached last Thursday, the crisis in the government — and the internal crisis in the RKP — is far from being resolved. “The fights within the coalition between the RKP and the Finns Party are as fierce as those between the government and the opposition,” explained Henrik Jaakkola, the political coordinator of the Left Alliance, one of the five groups of the previous coalition government.

A few weeks ago, former prime minister Sanna Marin said that the revelations about the far-right ministers come as “no surprise,” warning that they “reflected the darkest and most dehumanizing side of Finnish politics.”

Tuija Parvikko, professor of Political Science at the University of Jyväskylä, says that such a crisis was foreseeable from the start. “Over the last 20 years, quite a few members of the Finns Party have been caught making racist comments, through their channels, on social media or even in statements to the press,” Parvikko told EL PAÍS by phone.

Local media has also highlighted several reports that warn of the seriousness of racism in Finnish society. A report from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, for example, that concludes that Finland is the EU country — among the 12 analyzed — in which discrimination against the Black community is most common. Another study from the Council of Europe that warned that “racist and aggressive language” was increasingly common among young people. And last spring, Amnesty International urged for “action to end structural racism in Finland.”

Demonstration against racism in the Finnish government, on July 19 in Helsinki.
Demonstration against racism in the Finnish government, on July 19 in Helsinki.NurPhoto (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Jaakkola of the Left Alliance believes that racism “is a very serious problem,” and that the “government and its discriminatory policies are a threat to people of color in Finland.” For her part, Professor Parvikko believes that “part of Finnish society is unable to identify or admit its own racist behaviors, or to recognize the existence of structural racism.”

Since Orpo’s inauguration, several demonstrations have been held in Helsinki and other cities against the far-right groups in government. This Sunday, what will likely be by far the largest of all will take place in the capital. The organizers are confident that the march, to which hundreds of organizations have joined, will be “the largest protest in Finland in more than a decade.”

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