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Finland's racialised minorities worry after nationalist gains

Many observers across the country say that Finland's general election mainstreamed discrimination.

Jalankulkijoita suojatiellä.
File photo of pedestrians on zebra crossing. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

People working with equality and discrimination issues in Finland say the parliamentary election result has exposed deep-seated racism.

The Finns Party surged in the election to second place with 17.5 percent of Sunday's vote, showing the strength of Finland’s anti-immigrant far-right.

Members of Fem-R, a feminist peer support network for racialised people in Finland, is convening in Helsinki on Thursday to mull the results of the parliamentary elections, which saw the Finns Party, led by convicted hate speech offender Jussi Halla-aho, become Finland’s second biggest party.

Halla-aho has previously likened Islam to pedophilia and has said Somalis are predisposed to stealing and living off welfare. In 2006, he wrote that he hoped women members of the Green Party would become the victims of rape.

In the run-up to the election, cinema chain Finnkino played a Finns Party campaign film rife with racist tropes ahead of movies.

Nationalism here to stay

Following the election, editor-in-chief Erja Yläjärvi of tabloid Iltalehti said, "Finland is now clearly one of the numerous European countries where in election after election, anti-immigration sentiment and nationalism are permanently important values."

“Perhaps now residents in Finland who are not racialised will believe what people of colour have been saying for years,” said Saida Mäki-Penttilä, parliamentary aide to outgoing Green MP Jani Toivola, Finland’s first legislator of colour.

Mäki-Penttilä added that the result may open residents' eyes to the discrimination that many racialised people encounter on a daily basis. Racialisation describes the process of attributing racial meaning to people's identities.

“The result shows the true extent of racism in Finland. It’s not just affecting a few individuals, but speaks to how systemic it is in Finnish society,” Mäki-Penttilä explained.

Polarised climate

Attitudes towards migrants have become harsher in Finland in recent years, from street patrols by the anti-immigrant Soldiers of Odin to violent crimes perpetrated by extreme nationalist organisation Finland First during a months-long sit-in at Helsinki Central Railway Station. Last Independence Day, police intervened to forcibly remove swastika flags from Neo-Nazi demonstrators.

Violence also entered into the campaign trail, with Somali-born Helsinki city councillor Suldaan Said Ahmed saying he was assaulted last month while waiting for the metro in Itäkeskus. Meanwhile a man wearing clothes adorned with the logo of anti-immigrant group Soldiers of Odin attempted to strike Foreign Minister Timo Soini at a Blue Reform campaign rally in Vantaa. In the summer of 2017 Soini and a group of around 20 MPs and ministers split from the Finns Party, creating what became the Blue Reform.

"We are wondering what will happen next now that populist nationalists have become a permanent fixture in Finland," Aurora Lemma, co-chair of Fem-R, told Yle News.

Lemma said the election results were no surprise, given the polarised societal discussions on immigrant issues leading up to polling day.

"Since last autumn, and given the Finnish media’s attention on the Oulu sex abuse cases, the election result was expected," Lemma said.

Finland’s growing anti-immigrant sentiment also caught the attention of international media, with Bloomberg reporting that ‘Trump-style campaigning’ had taken root in the 'world’s happiest country'.

”What worries our members the most is that other political parties will adopt the same rhetoric to appeal to voters in the future,” Lemma explained.

"In the past two days, we’ve seen a lot of people applying for membership," said Lemma, whose NGO aims to amplify the voices of racialised people in Finland.

Poor result for immigrant candidates

Candidates of immigrant background running in the election failed to gain traction with voters.

”What are your chances of getting elected as a minority candidate?” Lemma asked, adding that many voters don’t seem to engage with messaging around discrimination.

Iraqi-born Hussein al-Taee and Bella Forsgrén, who was adopted from Ethiopia as an infant, are the only minority-background MPs joining the new legislature.

The organisers of Thursday's Fem-R event will give racialised people in Finland a chance to unpack poll results as well as the campaign rhetoric preceding the election.

Looking ahead to the next four years, Mäki-Penttilä emphasised that the government needs to draw up an anti-racist plan of action that will address racism in all areas of society.

Meanwhile Suldaan Said Ahmed clapped back at racist tirades directed at him on Twitter, noting that he was close to winning a parliamentary seat on the Left Alliance ticket.

“Things can be difficult - and even dangerous now - but nothing can stop me when I envision future generations living in a Finland where no one's Finnishness is questioned, and everyone can be who they are,” he tweeted after the election.

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