Immigration: why Timo Soini is not convinced by Halla-Aho

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In the last days, there has been some discussion in the Finns Party concerning Immigration. As reported by the Helsinki Times, Jussi Halla-aho, a Finns Party representative on the European Parliament, has recently criticized the attitude Timo Soini, its leader, indicating that “The party leadership has been reluctant to address the issue. Chairperson Timo Soini, for example, has noted that he is personally not interested in immigration. I feel that our support base strongly disagrees with Soini on the issue”. Timo Soini answered that immigration issues will be a part of the Finns party platform.

This exchange could appear as a consequence of the party losing continuously support in the polls since 2012, going from more than 21 % of votes to around 14 % in 3 years. This certainly creates an internal debate. It may be the case, but from my point of view the debate reveals the gap  between the left wing and the right wing of the Finns party. The interesting part is that Timo Soini added that “The single biggest problem for me are the millions of Finns who earn around 1,000 euros”, which is typically a left-sided statement. Halla-aho sees immigration and particularly Muslim immigration as the main problem for the country. On this basis, it is quite difficult to define the line of the party, as the two leaders have different opinions.

In fact, it is interesting to note the personal differences and similarities between the two men, and how much they differ from the majority of their voters, which may be important for the future of the party.

Jussi Halla-aho, 43, who has been a researcher at Helsinki University, has a Ph.D. of Philosophy, obtained with a dissertation in the field of linguistics. He is living on his salary as Member of the European Parliament. He lives in the most “bourgeois” part of Helsinki, Eira, and is married to another linguist specialist of Latin language. He is a controversial blogger and has been sentenced in 2012 by the Finnish Supreme Court for being guilty of both disturbing religious worship and of ethnic agitation: he had simply written in his blog  that the prophet Muhammad was a pedophile (Aisha was supposed to be married to the Prophet when she was 6, even if specialists have cast some doubts about it). He has also asked if  robbing passersby and living on taxpayers’ expense are cultural and possibly genetic characteristics of Somalis. He has written that Greece’s debt problems cannot be resolved without a military junta…

Timo Soini, 52, has a master in political science, and he has been a politician since 1989. He lives in the same Helsinki suburb in Kaita since 1968. He is criticizing Finland’s immigration policy, but is not known, like other populists leaders in Europe, and Halla-aho, for offensive exaggerations. As he has recently posted on his blog: ” I am probably better to speak about the EU and the problem of social justice“. He is a strong critic of the EU as it functions now, even if he has also been living 5 years on EU salary as a Member of the European Parliament, and is an advocate of the fight against poverty. Once asked about his family, he indicated that his father was more a social-democrat and that he could also have been in the social-democratic party. he is more known for his quality as a debater than for Halla-aho style’s exaggerations.

These two  leaders of the Finns party are quite different from their base: in his article “The breakthrough or Another West European Populist Radical Right Party? The Case of the True Finns“, David Arter indicates that the level of education of the supporters of the True Finns is relatively low. 53% have completed vocational school or college-level education, and 27% have completed only comprehensive, middle or primary school. Only 5% have a university education. But Arter notes also that the supporters of the True Finns are, according to a survey done in 2008-2009, on average well off, middle-aged male wage-earners and the supporters of the party are doing well financially, which may be a problem for Soini’s social orientation.

This may have serious consequences on the party’s positions concerning immigration, and could give Halla-aho some advantage in the debate with Soini: when an increasing number of immigrants arrive in Finland with a solid education, the problem of the Finns’ party voter is more about their own comparative disadvantage than about poverty, because from their point of view either immigrants find a job that  should have gone to native Finns, or they benefit from the social support, financed by taxes payed by people working.

So why is Soini, who is a clever person, not totally endorsing Halla-aho’s positions concerning immigration? A first element may be personal ethics, that I believe Soini has. A second reason is that there is a serious risk for the future of the Finns’ party: violent attacks against immigration may lead some people to attack immigrants in the name of the Finns’ party, and that could be disastrous in a country where a proper behavior is important. There is also the question of the development of the Finns’ party: it is quite difficult to get votes from the center, where the Center Party has benefited from some years in the opposition and from a good leadership, so Soini’s strategy may be now to continue to get votes from the formers voters of the Social Democratic Party, weakened by its participation in an unpopular government , its apparent support for Juncker’s liberal EU and its involvement in applying an unsuccessful economical liberal programme.

In addition, facts may be annoying for Halla-aho supporters. A recent OECD report on the Fiscal and Economic Impact of immigration on host countries arrives to some interesting conclusions, in particular that immigrants have a broadly neutral impact on the public purse in OECD countries, receiving in state benefits around about as much as they pay in tax and social contributions, and that employment – or whether migrants are working or not –is the most important determinant of their fiscal impact.

In an aging Finland, the question should not be to limit the number of immigrants when there are sectors where the employers are not able to replace retiring workers, but more how to push the immigrants to work, so that Finland’s finances are better balanced. For example, the rate of unemployment for Somalis, Iraqis and Afghans (who are mainly refugees) is over 50%, which means that their cost is high for Finland. For Russians, it is more than 25 %, which is also a problem. On the opposite side, Indians, Nepalese and immigrants from western countries have a better employment rate than Finns, thus are very useful for Finland’s budget. The same goes for Turkish nationals in Finland: one third of residents of Turkish origin run their own businesses. Among native Finns, that figure is only 10%.

This offers a number of arguments for the Finns’ party opponents, but it could also push this party to use these elements: in particular, it appears that refugees are costly for Finland, as they seem to work less in the country: limiting the number of refugees  would spare money, even if there is a limit with the existing international conventions concerning refugees. A second orientation may be to push all immigrants already in Finland into the working life, as it was asked by the Danish People Party some years ago. But it would be risky, and I am not sure that the leaders have the guts to do it: it would oblige to give immigrants some advantages or privileges to compensate their handicap on the job market, and this goes against the Finns’ party declared principles. But Soini does not lack courage…

So the campaign has begun, and it would be interesting to see what will happen in the Finns’ party: will there be some kind of strong push on immigration? Will Halla-aho view prevail? And moreover will the election confirm the decline of the party, which may be a problem for Soini?



Categories: Elections, Immigration

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