By many quantitative measures, Finnish democracy is in seemingly great shape. But while this European nation outwardly sets inspirational international standards for democracy, actions by the executive branch of the Finnish government over the past five years have grabbed the attention of scholars focused on potential democratic backslide in the country.
Following the Syrian refugee crisis that created an influx of asylum seekers in the country, nationalist tendencies and underhanded executive actions seem to be penetrating this traditionally healthy democracy. While Finland remains a bulwark of democratic principles in action, an investigation into the way the country has handled this foreign challenge illuminates a possible issue within Finnish democracy that seems to be caving toward slight democratic backslide.
Given the historical success of nationalist movements, the fear-mongering focus on the potential power of these groups seems sensible. For instance, there has been significant attention given to the nationalist power rising in Scandinavia and the possible threat that poses for individual democracies. However, one cannot make accurate claims about the state of democracy in a given country while solely focusing on this individual feature of some citizens’ civic engagement.
While the presence of nationalism is concerning, it is critical to distinguish between nationalism as an opposition movement in civil society and nationalism that deconstructs democratic safeguards. Once the nationalism has moved from public opinion to a foundation for government decision-making, democracy easily finds itself in trouble.
In Finland, nationalism has become recognizable in light of the surcharge of asylum seekers in Europe. This asylum seeker crisis led to controversial remarks from the Finnish president, Sauli Niinistö, in which he inferred that European/Finnish culture was at risk with the influx of asylees. This was interpreted by many to be racially/ethnically charged, given the racial demography of the predominantly Finnish culture in contrast to the asylum seekers, fleeing persecution from the Syrian War.
Subsequently, these remarks fed the narrative of nationalist impulses intruding on the health of the Scandinavian democracies. However, the journalistic hot-takes can ignore a critical component to connect nationalist tendencies and the possible detriment they pose to democracy. In order for nationalist movements to affect a country’s quality of democracy, they must permeate government institutions and actively deconstruct democratic processes.
In the example of Finland, the mere presence of nationalism is concerning, but not the direct harm to this European democracy. It is the government actions rooted in the promotion of this ideology into practice, allowing nationalist tendencies to undermine traditional democratic safeguards, that is most worrisome.
For instance, increased executive power and parliamentary gains among the Finnish nationalist party that coincide with increased support for Finnish nationalist sentiment are the tangible possible problems for Finnish democracy.
Following the emergence of the foreigner crisis in Europe, the nationalist Finn Party gained the third largest majority in Finnish parliament. The party engaged in inflammatory rhetoric regarding immigration and the refugee system in Finland. Utilizing similar rhetoric to that of the “alternative facts” analyzed in the Barrera paper, the Finns Party was tangibly successful in dictating the narrative of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in a light that benefitted their nationalist impulses. This manipulation of facts led to a successful promotion of nationalist ideology.
While to some inflammatory rhetoric may seem harmless, in their book, How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe that the successful reign of autocratic leaders begins with grandiose language that inflames a base. Furthermore, Levitsky and Ziblatt express the high probability of leaders to cross the line from words to action. The book makes clear that this is where the real damage to democracy is possible. In the Finnish case, it is important to note that the rhetoric used by the President and the Finns Party could manifest in some sort of greater democratic regression if it were to continue to infiltrate the Finnish government. Levitsky and Ziblatt would encourage outside viewers not to discount the possible negative effects nationalist rhetoric can have on the health of a democracy.
In fact, while the manifestation of Finnish nationalism has resulted in modest gains in Finnish Parliament and inflammatory remarks regarding immigration from the President, the real issue regarding the health of Finnish democracy lies in the resulting actions of these governmental leaders inspired by nationalist tendencies.
In terms of tangible democratic backsliding possibilities, the correlational relationship between recent increase in executive aggrandizement and the increased Finnish nationalist sentiment is the greatest area of concern. According to the Variety of Democracies (V-DEM) data statistics, Finland has experienced declines in institutional checks on executive power and increased executive power consolidation since the migrant crisis began to pick up in 2013.
This data shows the strength of a series of factors deemed to be telling of the health of an individual democracy over time. As nationalist tendencies have permeated the ideology of more government officials, the constitutional checks they are supposed to provide on the executive branch that harbors similar nationalist impulses seems to have declined in vigor. Given that this evidence of democratic backslide coincides with the gaining momentum of nationalist movements in Finland and the Finnish government, it is important that the nationalist movement is addressed as a possible contribution to democratic backslide.
While Finland remains a liberal democracy in which citizens enjoy a plethora of rights and the constitution is seemingly respected, even the slightest democratic regression in the country in light of increased nationalism is alarming. How the Finnish democracy holds up in the long-term will be telling of the true effects international migration crises can have on a democracy’s strength. As for the immediate effects, it seems that nationalist impulses have been effective in eroding some core aspects of intuitional checks embedded in Finnish democracy.
Photo by Scandinavian Times