Political upheaval in Finland
Finland has three main political parties: the National Coalition (moderate-right), the Social Democrats (moderate-left) and the Center (self-explanatory). The incumbent party in power is the Center party. All three operate within a broad consensus common to most mainstream European parties: socialist (by US standards) and supportive of the European Union and its common currency, the euro, which Finland uses.
This consensus is not shared by the True Finns party, a new party which won just 4% of the vote in the last national election in 2007. Yesterday they won 19%, putting themselves in the same league with the three main parties. The distribution of seats in the new parliament will look like this (there are 200 seats total):
National Coalition: 44
Social Democrats: 42
True Finns: 39
Center (incumbent): 35
It's likely the new government will be a coalition of the National Coalition and the True Finns -- a startling rise in status for a party dismissed as "fringe" just four years ago.
What were people voting for? The True Finns are a party of a type often called "far right" in the media, and the term fits them somewhat better than most. The most prominent plank in their party platform is opposition to the European Union; they flat-out advocate Finland's withdrawal from the Union, a very radical stance in a Europe where the consensus of major parties, left and right, treats the EU as a sacred cow.
Except for their support (mild compared with US Republicans) for Christianity, the True Finns make much of embracing Finland's native traditions and culture and oppose the infiltration of foreign cultural influences, especially Islamic. This "cultural patriotism", as I call it, seems to be a rising feeling across Europe, but it has seldom manifested itself politically. The True Finns even want to abolish the mandatory teaching of the Swedish language in schools (Finland has a 10% ethnic Swedish minority, and the country is officially bilingual).
The True Finns claim to be anti-Islam, but their anti-gay and anti- abortion stances actually align them more closely with Islamism than mainstream society. It's in these areas that they do deserve the epithet "far right". Most other anti-Islam parties in Europe, often called "far-right", are socially liberal in opposition to the reactionary and theocratic stances of Islamism, which is Europe's real equivalent of the Christian Right in the US.
Why does it matter? The EU is locked in a struggle to save its common currency, the euro. The threat comes from the debt problems of some of its peripheral countries -- Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and in the near future perhaps Spain -- which have had to ask for bail-outs from the EU to avoid defaults. This gigantically expensive mess has sharpened popular dislike of the EU among Europeans: people in the solvent countries (led by Germany and including Finland) hate seeing their money committed to bail-outs of what they consider sloppily-run foreign lands, while people in the peripheral countries (all of which suffer high unemployment) hate the brutal austerity policies imposed by the EU as the price of the bail-outs.
The EU is terrified that someday one of the peripheral countries will take the easy way out -- abandon the euro and return to a national currency with the greater flexibility it brings, and try to escape recession by currency depreciation rather than EU bail- outs and the hated austerity policies. Since the euro is unpopular (even in Germany, 57% now wish they had kept the mark), once one country bows to populism and breaks the ice, the whole system could start to unravel.
Bail-outs must be approved by all member countries. In most countries this is a rubber-stamp process, but in Finland, the parliament must vote on such matters. The True Finns made a promise to vote against the latest bail-out (for Portugal) their central campaign issue, and it's likely this that won them their startling success yesterday. They have a mandate; and if they demand a veto of the bail-out as a condition of joining a coalition, they could derail it and leave Portugal in the lurch -- possibly precipitating a crisis that could threaten the euro.
In fact, this may not happen. The EU has a history of fudging its own rules to get whatever it really wants, and it may find a way to push through the Portuguese bail-out even if Finland votes no.
But like the Green victory in Baden-Württemberg last month, the True Finns' success strikes a blow against the sclerotic consensus politics of Europe. Their support for withdrawal from the EU is actually more radical than the Greens' platform. They may give a boost to like-minded people elsewhere. In Britain, for example, the UK Independence Party seems somewhat similar to the True Finns -- while saddled with a slightly batty social conservatism, its central goal is to take Britain out of the EU.
As the Arab revolts have shown, ideas spread fast these days. An idea that seems unthinkable, once it wins out in one place, can suddenly become a realistic goal elsewhere.
Update: Analysis here. The True Finns' success was due to their anti-EU stance. There may be a compromise in which Finland would approve the bail-out if it didn't have to contribute -- but if Germans (among whom the bail-outs are at least as unpopular as among Finns) start asking why their country can't opt out as well, the kleptocratic oligarchy of the EU could face the biggest threat to its power yet.