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Ex-speaker's defection threatens support for social, health reform package

MP Maria Lohela's departure from the Blue Reform could threaten several pending bills, including major reforms to Finland's social and health care sector.

Maria Lohela
MP Maria Lohela Image: Jussi Nukari / Lehtikuva

Blue Reform MP Maria Lohela announced on Monday that she is leaving the Finns Party spin-off to join an activist group, Movement Now (Liike Nyt), founded by hockey team owner and former National Coalition Party MP Hjallis Harkimo.

"My interest was immediately piqued when Hjallis founded the movement last year," Lohela told reporters at a news conference.

She said that with the move, she would also be relinquishing her MP seat, as she had decided not to run for re-election in the upcoming general elections in April. This leaves the three-party government coalition with one less seat in Parliament, endangering several pending legal reforms that must be voted on before the current parliamentary terms end.

Lohela's move further imperils the government's planned overhaul of social and health care services, colloquially known as "sote", on which MPs have yet to cast a final vote. The ex-Speaker said she would vote against the reform. She roundly condemned the government's flagship programme, which has the support of her former colleagues in the Blue Reform, saying that the needs of ordinary people have been eclipsed by the interests of market forces and regional reforms, at the behest of the National Coalition Party and the Centre Party respectively.

"I asked myself what my duty is in this matter as a member of parliament and I cannot in good conscience support these things," she commented.

Lohela's defection further narrows the government's already razor-thin majority on the issue to just one vote: a total of 99 lawmakers now oppose the raft of measures compared to 100 who would vote to see it through. As it stands, the loss of a single vote would scupper the long-in-the-making reform package.

Other MPs who have publicly opposed the social and health care reform proposal include the NCP 's Elina Lepomäki and Susanna Koski as well as veteran lawmaker Paavo Väyrynen, who quit the Centre Party last spring.

Already defected once before

Lohela was elected as an MP from the Southwest Finland region in 2011, as a member of the nationalist Finns Party. After she maintained her seat in the 2015 election, she was named Speaker of Parliament, where she served from 2015 to 2018.

In the wake of the election of immigration hardliner Jussi Halla-aho as leader of the Finns Party in July 2017, Lohela joined 19 other high-profile Finns Party ministers and MPs and left the party to set up a new group eventually named the Blue Reform.

Lohela became Speaker on the back of the Finns Party's voter mandate in the 2015 general election, which made them the second-largest group in Parliament. After the spilt from the Finns Party in 2017, Lohela vacated her Speaker position in February 2018 and returned to her MP role.

Polling for the Blue Reform since the split in 2017 has been very low. The latest Yle assessment of voter allegiances found that the just one percent of respondents planned to cast their ballot for a Blue Reform candidate, in a poll with a 2.1 percentage point margin of error.

Movement Now changes mind about elections

When Harkimo and his colleagues founded Movement Now in 2018, he said the new group was not a political party and its members would not be running for office.

However, Harkimo announced in late November of last year that candidates from the independent association will run in the April 2019 parliamentary elections, after all.

He said the movement's 12,000 registered supporters all backed the group's run for Parliament. The group's website already profiles 20 candidates. Co-founder of the movement, former Social Democratic Party MP Mikael Jungner, a communications agency boss and former director of broadcaster Yle, said that he does not plan to run in the election.

The five other co-founders of the group include outspoken media personality Tuomas Enbuske, entrepreneur Alex Nieminen, founder of the Slush business event Helene Auramo, PhD researcher Karoliina Kähönen and communications manager Sarian Antila.

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