Ann-Cathrine Jungar, researcher: about the golden age of the Nordic far-right parties, such as the Finns Party, and its consequences for politics and the society

Ann-Cathrin Jungar

Ann-Cathrine Jungar is a Swedish-speaking Finn, born in Pietarsaari, in Ostrobothnia. She is associate professor in political science at the Södertörn University College based in Stockholm. She defended her Ph.D. in Uppsala, Department of Government, after a master’s thesis and associate thesis at Åbo Akademi University in Finland. She has been also living in Norway, and has a lot of contacts in Iceland. She has for this reason a special interest in European comparative politics, and more recently in comparative analysis of the political systems in the Nordic countries.

What is the present situation of extreme-right in the Nordic countries?

I prefer to talk about “far right.” That is kind of the umbrella concept for extreme right parties, the populist/radical right parties, and then you may have kind of populist parties, single-issue parties. My research has concerned these populist radical right parties. I don’t consider them extreme, in the sense that they would be anti-democratic, or being against parliamentary government and representative politics. But of course, in the relative sense, they pose extreme views on certain issues, and that is the reason why I would even prefer to call them radical right.

Where are these far-right movement coming from in the different countries? In Finland, I know it has an agrarian origin. But is it the same in all of the Nordic countries?

I published an article with a colleague of mine in Oslo, named Anders Ravik Jupskås, and there we made the statement that a convergence has taken place in the Nordic systems, in the sense that these parties that have been called populist or anti-establishment parties have converged. Now we see the establishment of a populist radical right party family. But of course, populisms in the Nordic countries have different historic origins.

For Finland, it has evolved in three distinct waves, the first wave occurring in Finland in the late ‘50s, when they came almost straight from the agrarian party and formed a small rural holders’ party in 1959 that later changed its name. And as you said, that was an agrarian populist party. The main themes were, of course, the anti-establishment position. It was also an interest-based party, as it proclaimed to further the interests of the rural small holders that were, in a way, threatened both by modernization, the changing economic structures, and industrialization. So, both the trades and the values of the agrarian population were, in a way, threatened in this kind of structural change taking place in Finland.

It was also kind of very conservative, also critical of Finland’s foreign political position towards the Soviet Union. Veikko Vennamo, their leader was fiercely anti-Communist, as well. There was at the same time a similar French populist movement, the Pujadas, which evolved during the same time period, a period of societal change. But what few know, in the European context, is that the Finnish populism is actually the one with the most success in the European context. I mean, the party has had representation in Parliament since 1966, and it has transformed, and now it is in the Finnish government. It is strange to think that everyone in the political field knows what Poujadism is, but few know in Europe what Vennamism is. And I think that is a fact that needs to be remembered.

Then we had the second wave occurring, firstly in Denmark and afterwards in Norway, in 1973, when Mogens Glistrup firstly made the kind of earthquake elections in 1973. He received more than 15% of the vote. He was a lawyer, like Vennamo. He was also a very rhetorically gifted person. He was also a rebel, but in a different way: when Vennamo talked about solidarity between the urban and rural areas, about people with small incomes, and so on, it was more to the left, but Mogens Glistrup was very economically liberal. He was against taxes and the growing welfare state, and simultaneously maintaining this same fiercely anti-establishment rhetoric.

And of course, this was after the first referendum on EU membership in Denmark, so that meant that a lot of voters had been disentangled from their own party loyalties. So, there was kind of a group of free-floating voters out there, critical of their own parties wanting to bring Denmark into the European Union. So, that was kind of an opportunity structure for a political entrepreneur like Glistrop to make this party.

And the same year, Anders Lange formed Anders Lange’s party (which became later, the Norwegian Fremskrittspartiet or Progress Party), which was molded in the same way as the Danish party, with a lot of common inspiration. And of course, that is a quite different type of party than the Vennamo’s Finnish small rural party, as it was economically liberal, and so on. That was the second wave.

And the third wave, which we could call the neo-populist wave, happened in the late ‘80s, such as the Front National in France and many other parties in Europe. These parties have started to mobilize initially against immigration mostly, and nationalism sometimes. The Sweden Democrats were, of course, pulled out of both old national/socialist/older Nazi/racist/anti-immigration movements in Sweden, so that was kind of a nationalist party.

Of course, these historical trajectories have impacted on how the parties have been considered legitimate parties by the voters, as well as by the mainstream political parties. And of course, it explains also their present-day parliamentary situation, whether they are considered as legitimate parties of government, like the Finns Party, or isolated like the Sweden Democrats.

So, in the long term, the Nordic countries have been a fruitful place for populism. And we are far from these short-lived political phenomena, flash parties that rise like the sun, and then drop in the evening. They now have been there for a long time. It has taken a long time to establish themselves. But they have built up—and during the last decade, they have had their greatest electoral successes. They have grown their party membership, and they have built up efficient organizations nationally. So, I think the last decade has been the golden era or the golden period for these parties.

Do these parties have links? Are they organized together? Are there some exchanges?

In the article I mentioned, published in Scandinavian Political Studies, we talk about their convergence, and we show how this has taken place, even though they have these different historical trajectories. If you talk about politics along two dimensions, you may have socioeconomic left/right, and then we have a value-based left/right: On the right side, we have the authoritarian spectrum and nationalism, interest in harder punishments for crime, defense of traditional family values, and then we have the liberal value on more post-material values, like ecology, and green values, cosmopolitanism, gender identity issues, gender equality, all these issues.

These parties are situated on the authoritarian end of all these value dimensions. And they have moved all to the economic center, both—in particular, the Danish People’s Party that was economically liberal. When Pia Kjærsgaard took over or split from the Danish Progress Party and formed the Danish People’s Party in 1995, since that, the party has constantly moved towards the economic center. And of course, that is a way of attracting voters, both from the left and right. And we see increasingly, now, that these parties mobilize voters, both from the conservative or right-wing parties, as well as from social democratic parties. When they claim that they are the new worker’s party, it is not completely wrong. They have a large segment of dissatisfied social democratic voters, so left voters.

So, they have converged, policy-wise. Of course, when it comes to cooperation, it is kind of a paradox that nationalist parties would have trans-national cooperation; but the original idea of nationalism belongs to older times when it was connected to having imperial and territorial claims. Today, this new nationalism is mostly cultural and ethno-cultural, which is quite different: now they have common enemies, fighting immigration and protecting the European values. And fighting the European Union, which is “inflicting damages on national sovereignty.” And of course, Islam is a “foreign culture threatening our Finnish/Swedish/Norwegian/Danish national culture and language.”

So the obstacles for having international cooperation are not there anymore. And of course, you could see it with the European parliamentary elections. It was easier, even though it was difficult, to form party federations. Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders made this effort to make the European Alliance of Freedom, even though they were not successful. However, in the Nordic countries, it has taken some time for cooperation to evolve. The Sweden Democrats said they had cooperation with Front National, but that was a long time ago. Now, their closest partner is, of course, the Danish People’s Party, which makes sense if you remember that Sweden Democrats are strongest in the southern parts of Sweden, which are very near Denmark. It is not surprising that, at the electoral campaign in 2010, when the Sweden Democrats made it into parliament for the first time, Pia Kjærsgaardleader of the Danish People’s Party, was taking part in one of those Sweden Democrat meetings. So, there is a lot of bilateral cooperation there.

The Danish People’s Party and the Finns Party are linked through personal contacts established between Timo Soini and, in particular, Morten Messerschmidt (Danish People’s Party ) in the European Parliament, when they were members of the same party grouping between 2009 and 2014, Nigel Farage’s “Europe of Freedom And Democracy”, now “Europe of Direct Democracy and Freedom”. And the Danish People’s Party and the Finns Party formed a proper party federation in the Nordic Council in 2011. And the Sweden Democrats wanted to be a member, but were not invited. They said, the Finns Party in particular, “Well, they are too extreme,”. And of course, that was a strategic move. They didn’t want the extremism, or the perceived extremism, of the Sweden Democrats to spill over to themselves and create a debate at home.

But recently, there have been contacts, for example during the Finnish parliamentary campaign. The international  secretary of the Sweden Democrats, Ken Ekeroth, was taking part in an electoral meeting that was held in Turku by a Finn’s Party candidate. Of course, there is cooperation.

There is one exception: the Norwegian Progress Party vehemently opposes all types of cooperation. They don’t want to be associated with these parties.

Of course, we also know that the youth organizations have contact with one another, and of course we know that they have different types of contacts in Europe. I think this is something that we will see more of. And when it comes to contacts, they learn a lot from one another. There’s a lot of diffusion of ideas and strategies and such between these parties. They keep track of one another.

I have seen that there are many differences between the ways the other parties are reacting. In Finland, the Finns Party is in the government. In Denmark, it is more or less allied, at the moment, with the parties in government. In Norway, there are discussions with the right side, I think. And then, in Sweden, or in France or Belgium, other parties seem to reject the cooperation. What do you think about these strategies?

We see in Europe today that these parties are increasing their vote, and that they try to moderate their policies and profiles, like Marine Le Pen in France. Moderation is a keyword. And they’re building up organizations. There is a move from the margins to the mainstreams. Of course, since their parliamentary weight increases, everything depends on how the votes are translated to seats in the Parliament. That is really obvious in the French case: if France had the same electoral system as the Nordic countries, the Front National would be well-represented in the parliament, and the question of their presence in the government would be evident for the other parties .

In Finland and Norway, the parties are in government. The Progress Party joined the center-right government in 2013. It is a minority government, with the Progress Party and the Conservative Party (Høyre) but it has two support parties, the center party and the Christian small party. But the Progress Party had been around for 40 years, so it took some time. Already in 2009, the Conservative Party Høyre declared that they were prepared to govern with Progress Party, whereas the small center and Christian parties were far more reluctant. Their party leaders had actually stated that they would never join government with these parties. Then they changed party leadership, and there was a situation where the only way to form a center right government with a majority would be with the Progress Party. So the Progress Party was invited to government.

In Finland, the Finns Party has kind of a different history. The predecessor party, the smallholders’ party, was in government between 1983 and 1990, so they had already this kind of governmental legitimacy. What is surprising, from a comparative European perspective, is that the Finns Party has radicalized, compared to their predecessor party: I’ll show in my research that the party has radicalized policy-wise, with the inclusion of nationalist-minded groups, and also you can see that, for the voters, issues like immigration and the EU are the most important. It looks like the liberal/authoritarian dimension is more important than socioeconomic issues for voting for the Finns Party.

But even though the party has radicalized, there was no reluctance among the mainstream parties to include it in government. The party was invited to take part in the government negotiations in 2011, after their electoral breakthrough. At that point of time, I think it was only the Green Party that was saying, “Well, we won’t sit in the same cabinet as the Finns Party.” And at that point, I think the EU issue was the main question for Prime Minister Sipilä when including the Finns Party in the coalition, rather than the opposition to immigration, or the party’s nationalist and racist opinions. And so, in 2011, the Finns Party modified their position on the euro and Finnish membership in the Euro area. That was their ticket into the government then.

And talking about strategies, what we see is that both the Finns Party and the Progress Party are doing quite badly in the opinion polls. So, if you want to have a strategy to reduce their electoral support, it would be to take them into government. Of course, the other side is that then you have them in government, they expect to have some influence, and there is a risk of validating their positions. But it seems to be the most efficient strategy.

Denmark is an interesting case, too. The Progress Party was a support party to the Danish Government, Center-right government, between 2001 and 2011. They maintained and even increased their electoral support over that period. They had a huge influence over Danish immigration and asylum policy. You could almost say that that was the period of a paradigmatic shift in Denmark—both immigration and integration policies happened. So, they were really influential. I think that was also the strategy of Pia Kjærsgaard when she split from the Mogens Glistrup party: she wanted to have influence, and she was really successful. Kristian Thulesen Dahl, who took over 2 years ago, has been successful in growing the vote. In the parliamentary elections in June, the Danish People’s Party was the largest party after the Social-Democrats, but abstained from taking part in government.

Of course, these parties may have to choose, as influencing policies may mean losing votes. Of course, Kristian Thulesen Dahl knew, and he had seen, what happened to the Progress Party, the risk of losing votes. I think the party members and the voters were split. Some expected the party to take responsibility and join government. Thulesen Dahl said, “Well, to be in government would be to be in a cage. You are trapped in there, and you have to take responsibility for a lot of questions.” But I don’t know if this kind of support party strategy will be as successful now as it was before, because that was a way of becoming a legitimate party, being supportive, taking responsibility, showing that you can act in a decent way in Parliament.

For the Sweden Democrats, with its historical origin, the other parties have maintained a kind of informal code of isolation, like, as I said, in Belgium with the Vlaams Belang. The Sweden Democrats doubled their share of the vote in the 2014 elections, and in the opinion polls, they are now around 17, 18, 19 percent, and it seems to be very stable. Of course, the parliamentary situation has been quite difficult for the mainstream parties: Sweden has now a government without having a majority backing in the parliament when taking office, it only has to be tolerated by a majority. But then the difficulties arise when you have to pass the budget. That is what has happened, because the Sweden Democrats voted with the right-wing opposition parties. And the social democrat government had to manage with the budget of the opposition!

So, of course, the parliamentary situation is tricky in Sweden, and that has also paved the way for greater Sweden Democratic influence. Even though they are isolated, even if the parties say that they don’t negotiate with them, they have a lot of influence. Of course, we have seen, already, before this so-called refugee crisis, adaptation from other parties. It started already in January, talking about immigration, restriction of temporary permits of residents, closed borders. And now, everything has been changing very rapidly during the last year or the last half-year.

So, I don’t know. Evaluating all of these strategies, I don’t know if there is one that is more successful than the others. You can take them in the government, looking at the Nordic cases that would be the obvious answer, if you want to shrink their support. But as I said, then you risk that they will influence, and you will have policies that you dislike.

On the other hand, the costs of excluding them are high, in particular for center-right parties, because if you have to form governments with left-wing parties, you have to compromise a lot more on other issues, you have to be soft on socioeconomic issues.

In addition, there is on the local level in Sweden a lot of pressure put on the central party leadership to open up to full cooperation, in particular in the conservative party, Moderaterna. There have been, of course, certain municipalities where the Sweden Democrats have a large number of seats, and there has been cooperation. There are some kind of technical agreements in some municipalities on how to share chairmanships for the municipality. In Gävle, for example, after 40 years of social democratic rule, the right-wing alliance made the sitting municipality council fall with the help of the Sweden Democrats.

So, cooperation is developing, and I think it will be difficult to isolate these far-right parties. Of course, the Belgian experience with the Vlaams Belang was successful. In the beginning, the Vlaams Belang could develop their electorate by saying that “we are isolated, we are martyrs, look at us—all the established parties are meeting and isolating us”. In the end, during the last years, the party has shrunk. But what happened is that, even though the party has disappeared, you have still their voters, that demand these types of radical immigration/integration policies and are critical of the European Union. And so, it was the N-VA, the party that was more moderate that, in a way, hijacked these voters, and took the ideas!

So, it is not that easy, you cannot just think that demand for these types of parties will disappear, if you just isolate them or exclude them, as long as there are voters that consider those niche questions of these parties so crucial, so that would kind of determine how they vote.

In Finland, I’ve interviewed some leaders of the Social Democrats who were actually ready to work with them in the government…

That is a typical Finnish attitude, you see also adaptation taking place among mainstream parties, and I think particularly in Finland. These types of rhetorics on integration, on immigration, have spread and you have, in the other parties, groups that are also very nationalist. On the right side, they combine nationalism with economic liberalism. They’re also against the welfare state. And so, I think it is quite troublesome to say, “We’ll cooperate with them,” because in that way, you also accept some of their rhetorics.

I have been following now what’s been going on in Finland with these groups, motorcycle gang groups, patrolling, how the general debate has been really kind of radicalized, with a lot of prejudice, and a press working on non-verified information. That is really dangerous. There is also the police having to correct their own forces, that is a sad development. One reason is that many of the established parties have not, in a way, stated properly what is acceptable. I think it was the case in summer when Immonen, a parliament member chairman of Suomen Sisu, a nationalist group, has been taking part in a manifestation with Suomen vastarintaliike, a neo-nazi organisation which has Svenska Motsåndsrörelsen as its Swedish counterpart. If you have parliamentary representatives that are in contact with extreme environments, it is worrying, really worrying.

Is there a risk of an evolution of the situation in the same way as in Germany in the 30s, when the Nazis were patrolling the streets to ensure security, burning Jewish people houses, when now it is the shelters for refugees, and slowly increasing their presence in the elections?

I am not a historian. But we have well-established democracies, and also, among the citizens there is great support for democracy. So, I don’t think that there is the risk that these parties could take over. I think, still, liberal democracy is established. And looking at all kinds of opinion polls all over the world, democracy as an idea is still strong out there.
But of course, there is an increasing criticism of how present-day democracies work. In a way, it is kind of showing that citizens today are maybe more illuminated and more critical. They can separate between democracy as an idea and also be critical of political parties. So, I think people are critical of how the present-day political parties work. And I think there is a good case for the established parties to ask themselves in what ways they have paved the way for these parties.

Thinking about the European integration and the euro, a lot of promises have been made that there would be no problems or economic crises,and look at the situation… and with the European integration, powers have been all the time moved or transferred to the EU, but there have been few competencies delegated back to the member states when it was not functioning. I can’t remember a single one, actually, when you think about the different treaties during the last decade. Citizens are not accepting it. So, obviously, there is a distrust in political parties and political leadership. And I think that has to be taken seriously. There is a reason why they are here.

I speak about the EU because we have a Swedish network of European Union researchers, lawyers, political scientists, and economists, and we published a book on the EU. And I wrote a chapter concerning the far-right parties in the European parliamentary elections. And then, I realized that these parties in a way are the only parties that, in a way, present a very clear position on the European Union and on immigration that no other parties pose, so that they are important for democracy. So, in a way, if you think about democracy as a system where the opinions of the voters are represented, these parties have contributed to that representation, and these ideas are channeled into the existing parliamentary systems, and these voters don’t stop voting, or going to more extreme groups.

Concerning the extreme movements, they are kind of troublesome. But I think one has to be very careful making any kind of jumped-to conclusions, because we have very little research and empirical data. We don’t know to what extent what I would call extreme organizations or movements are growing. They have increased support, or they have more members, so we can see that they have become more active, in Finland, for instance, and also that in some countries, the extreme movements have cooperation or channels into the mainstream populist radical right parties. So, the idea that the populist radical right parties will, in a way, put an end, or in a way, suffocate these extreme right organizations is not really easy to hold. But we do not know yet. And there might be a dynamic relationship where it takes some time. I don’t know.

But what we see is that these extreme groups have become more active, particularly in election times. And of course, with this immigration, they have a lot of occasions to mobilize. But I think the problem is the acceptance among some mainstream parties towards these extreme movements and persons. They accept hate speech, hate crimes, trying to link immigration with terrorism or radicalization… In fact, we know a lot about radicalization. It is not the ones who are coming as refugees that radicalize, but they are kind of the second or third generation, usually coming from non-religious environments. So, I think the debate needs to be more based on facts than on these conspiracy theories and ideologically-laden argumentation. There the mainstream parties have to be very careful.


Jungar, A-C, (2015) ‘Business as usual: ideology and populist appeals of the Sweden Democrats in Kriese and Pappas ‘Populism in the Shadow of the great recession’.

Jungar, A-C, 2015, ”Agrarian populism in Finland” in Strijker, Dirk, Voerman Gerrit & Terlin, Ida (eds) Rural protest groups and populist parties, Wageningen Academic Publishers

Jungar. Ann-Cathrine, 2015,  “Few sweet promises in the Finnish parliamentary elections”, Baltic Worlds

Jungar, A-C, (2015) ”A Centre-right government takes form in Finland” Baltic Worlds

Jungar, A-C. (2015) ´Perussuomalaiset in oikeistoradikaali puolue’ Turun Sanomat 2015-05-07

An analysis of Finnish populism in Swedish (två delar), and in English

Categories: Elections, Government, Parliament

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