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Soini announces he will not continue at Finns Party helm

Timo Soini, the charismatic leader of Finland’s populist Finns Party for two decades, announced in his blog Sunday that he will not continue as chair after the party congress in early June.

Timo Soini
Timo Soini Image: Jarno Kuusinen / AOP

Finns Party chair Timo Soini wrote in his blog on Sunday that he will not be in the running for the party chair position this June, marking the end of his 20 year career as leader of the populist party.

"I will not be seeking another term in the Jyväskylä party congress in early June," he writes. "Something else is now in store."

Soini writes that his decision was a difficult one to make, but he believes that it is the best decision for everyone involved. He said he started to lean towards a decision to hang up his party chair hat earlier this year.

Soini became the leader of the True Finns Party in 1997. Two years earlier, he and two others had created the new political party, which changed its name to the Finns Party in 2011. Soini ran for Parliament in the spring 1999 elections, but lost. He was later elected in 2003.

In the 2009 European Parliament election he won nearly 10 percent of all votes in Finland, becoming the first member of his party to serve as an MEP from 2009-2011, after which he returned to the Finnish Parliament.

Cinderella story

Soini’s finest moment was perhaps the 2011 parliamentary election, however, when he rode the back of discontent and led his party to a historic victory. The Finns Party won 39 seats, making them the third largest party.

He himself received 43,437 personal votes in 2011, 1.5 percent of all votes cast, the highest of any candidate.

Soini and the Finns Party were a vocal and appealing opposition party, and Soini managed to raise the party's popularity from 4.1 percent to 19.1 percent in just four years. 

In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the Finns Party obtained 38 seats, becoming the second biggest party after the Centre Party. Coalition negotiations began on May 8 between the Centre Party, the Finns Party and the National Coalition Party, and Soini joined the government as Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Soini mentioned in his blog on Sunday that he would like to continue in his minister position until the end of the election term in 2019.

"This depends on several things: primarily if the party will continue in government," he says.

He says he would like to see the Finns Party continue in the coalition.

Slump in support since gaining power

Since the party entered the austerity-minded centre-right government, however, it has steadily lost support. The latest Yle poll from January 2017 showed the Finns Party enjoyed 8.8 percent of the voters’ support, less than half of the 17.7 percent of the vote the party gained in the 2015 elections.

Many former Finns Party adherents think the party has betrayed the working class in Finland by signing off on the government’s cuts to wages, benefits and services.

Soini’s successor will be chosen in June in the central Finland city of Jyväskylä.  MEP Jussi Halla-aho and parliamentary group chair Sampo Terho have both indicated an interest in taking up the mantle.

Terho said in a Sunday morning Facebook status update that he would confirm his plans on Monday. 

"I will talk it over with my family and work colleagues, and let you know tomorrow," he wrote.

Defence minister Jussi Niinistö also told the media that he would announce on Monday if he would be running to lead the party.

Halla-aho the current favourite

The Europarliamentarian Halla-aho told the tabloid Iltalehti that Soini’s decision would not affect his decision to run for Finns Party chair. Halla-aho told the newspaper Helsinki Sanomat in late December 2016 that he would likely throw his hat in the ring. A Lännen Media news agency poll from mid-January found that 45 percent of Finns Party members participating in the survey supported Halla-aho.

In 2012 Halla-aho was convicted of hate speech for anti-Islamic statements written in a blog post. He is also is a member of Suomen Sisu, a group that describes itself as patriotic and nationalist, and which opposes immigration and multiculturalism.

Several leaders from other political parties in Finland, namely the Greens, the Swedish People's Party and the Left Alliance, came out publicly after Halla-aho said he may run for the leadership of the Finns Party to say they would refuse to work with him, if he were elected.

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