Profile: Sebastian Tynkkynen, rebel in search of a party

Sebastian Tynkkynen Helsinki-Vantaan lentoasemalla
Image: Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva

The Finns Party has been roiled by a backlash against its policies in government. Leading the rebellion has been Sebastian Tynkkynen, the leader of the party’s youth wing who was expelled by the party’s board in late October. Here’s our profile of the man causing party leader Timo Soini plenty of headaches.

The first thing to say about Sebastian Tynkkynen is that he’s not a typical member of the populist Finns Party. The 26-year-old rose to prominence as a contestant on the reality TV show Big Brother, he says he’s a keen fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, and, in a conservative nationalist party staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage, is openly bisexual.

His status as a Z-list celebrity was not a hindrance to entering politics, indeed he is following a well-worn path. Professional wrestler Tony Halme and bodybuilder-singer Kike Elomaa have represented the Finns Party in Parliament, while middle-of-the-road pop singer Mikko Alatalo and former Miss Finland Tanja Karpela have been Centre Party MPs among many other athletes and entertainers.

In contrast to those celebrity-politicians, however, Tynkkynen has launched a full-scale rebellion against the party leadership. This autumn he started collecting signatures to support his call for a vote of confidence in the party's top brass, whom he said had betrayed promises to control immigration since taking office in late May. His trenchant opposition and background in mass-appeal reality television make him a dangerous opponent for party leader Soini. His party has only been in government for about five months after 20 years in opposition.

"Tynkkynen won’t go quietly," said Jari Korkki, an experienced political journalist at Yle. "He knows how to play the media game and that’s a shock to Soini, who has been an expert at that."

Eurosceptic values

Tynkkynen’s values do mesh with the party’s in two important respects: he is unwaveringly anti-immigration and critical of the EU. Those are the issues that saw him build a base within the party—and that base was the launchpad for his successful bid to be elected as a vice-chair of the party at this summer’s party congress.

In the second round of voting, he defeated Juho Eerola, a trusted lieutenant of Soini’s, by 376 votes to 269.

"The youth wing had organised very well," said Korkki. "It’s a classic move in Finnish politics—on Sunday morning when the older members have a hangover, the youth wing turns up mob-handed and votes through some changes they know will annoy the grown-ups."

After the vote Soini refused a joint interview with Tynkkynen and gave many journalists the impression he was extremely annoyed with the result. Soini’s response was a surprise to many seasoned observers of Finnish politics.

"The Finns Party rose in this spring’s parliamentary elections to become Finland’s second biggest party," wrote Yle’s Pirjo Auvinen recently. "Even so, it’s run like a one-man show. Or could you imagine another party where the chair refuses to give a joint interview with a vice-chair?"

Breakdown in trust

Their relationship has only deteriorated since that party congress in Turku. Responding to Tynkkynen’s call for a vote of confidence, the party board then revoked his membership.

The official reason given was that he had drawn up a list of those calling for a party congress and published it online without permission.

They could not legally sack him as a third vice-chair without calling a party meeting—the very measure for which he’d been campaigning—and so he remains officially a board member, welcome to attend board meetings but (unlike previous leaders of the party's youth wing) barred from the party's parliamentary group.

Soini had previously maintained that dealing with disciplinary matters was not his job as leader, but he changed that policy for Tynkkynen. When Oulu MP Olli Immonen came under fire in late July for appearing to agitate on Facebook for a race war, that was dealt with by the leader of the Finns Party's parliamentary group. There is a crucial difference between the two cases in that Immonen's indiscipline related to statements on policy, whereas Tynkkynen's insubordination was a direct challenge to Soini.

Tynkkynen is from the northern city of Oulu and is enrolled in the university there, but since rising to chair the Finns Party youth he’s moved to Helsinki. Right now he is fighting to force the party to take more of a stand against immigration, and to let him remain as a member.

"Tynkkynen thinks that promises have to be kept in politics, whereas Soini knows that promises are what get you elected and then afterwards you can always point to other parties and say you’re not in government alone," says Korkki.

Mohammed cartoons

The provocative, rebellious actions are part of a pattern of behaviour for the renegade Tynkkynen.

Back in January the Finns Party youth wing’s magazine, Rahvas, announced an Islamic cartoon competition—just days after the Jihadist attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. As chair of the party’s youth wing, Tynkkynen serves as the magazine’s editor. He was forced to cancel the competition after a media outcry.

A much-publicised burning of the EU flag at the youth wing’s conference was also a controversial move, with Soini himself saying that flag-burning is not a Finnish habit.

"Timo Soini sets the party’s political lines and modes of operation," said Tynkkynen at the time. "We are an independent youth organisation and we also think for ourselves."

That’s been Tynkkynen’s modus operandi ever since he burst onto the scene. It remains to be seen whether or not he can maintain his opposition to Soini’s leadership—but he is unlikely to be short of allies if he does.

According to Korkki, the key figure in the future could be Jussi Halla-aho, a former Finns Party MP and outspoken critic of immigration and multiculturalism. Despite being convicted of ethnic agitation and disturbing religious worship in 2012, he was elected to European Parliament last year with the second-largest vote total in Finland.

"If Halla-aho were to openly challenge Soini, he would quickly find support and split the party. Perhaps he could even hijack the party, rather than form a splinter group," suggests Korkki.

See you in court?

If the party and Tynkkynen don’t resolve their differences amicably, the renegade has said he’ll seek legal redress.

Experts such as Helsinki University Professor Heikki Halila and Data Protection Ombudsman Reijo Aarnio say he might well have a case, noting for instance that however under party rules, only a party member may serve as a deputy chair, and that no criminal charges were filed for his alleged violation of privacy.

Court action is a move that could have serious ramifications for Finland’s second-biggest political force - which has seen its support slump by half since taking office - and for the three-party government coalition, which has otherwise been showing signs of internal dissent.

Tynkkynen himself raised the spectre of the case dragging through the courts during next year's municipal elections. That would be a noisy sideshow for the party as it tries to claw back lost support.