While UKIP finished with the third highest vote share in the UK’s general election, elsewhere in Finland the Eurosceptic Finns Party recently became the second largest party in the country’s parliament and is set to join the next governing coalition. Mari Niemi compares the fortunes of UKIP and the Finns Party, noting that beyond their Euroscepticism both parties have shared a common route to the political mainstream.
In both Finland and the United Kingdom’s general elections this spring, the success of two populist and Eurosceptic parties – the Finns Party and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) – has generated international interest. But how have these two parties conquered voters’ coffee-table discussions and, in some cases, their hearts?
In order to grow, a newcomer party faces two challenges: first, to gain visibility and second, to earn credibility. In achieving both of these aims, media publicity is an essential tool. The media’s insatiable appetite for the public persona of the leaders of the Finns Party and UKIP, allied with each party’s provocative, well-tailored messages, has helped achieve the first task. Undoubtedly, the voters’ recognition of these parties has grown. However, gaining credibility has been more challenging, partly because the focus of media scrutiny has extended to those party members and candidates whose views or actions have been less advantageous.
The political, societal and cultural contexts in which UKIP and the Finns Party have emerged and operated are notably different. However, in the media, the rise of both parties has followed similar paths. It is no surprise that these populist, nationalist, Eurosceptic, leader-centred and anti-elite parties that are willing to limit immigration share many common features. Furthermore, the long-term friendship and cooperation between the party leaders, Timo Soini and Nigel Farage, may explain some of the resemblances in the parties’ strategies and even in their rhetoric.
Both Farage and Soini have been extremely successful in drawing media attention to themselves. Their jovial public personas, gift for delivering one-liners and capacity for representing themselves as the everyman standing up for ‘the people’ against the elites have been crucial, especially in cultivating approval in the tabloids. In terms of speaking to these parties’ potential voters, this connection has been vital.
Other important factors that explain the ability of UKIP and the Finns Party to hoover up exposure include the use of carefully selected celebrity candidates, distinctive policy topics, damage control in response to accusations of racism and male chauvinism and finally, the attention created by each party’s growing support.
In terms of candidate selection, both parties managed to recruit well-known, controversial celebrity candidates who were able to command media attention. In Finland, this role was played by Tony Halme, a professional wrestler famous for his appearances in the World Wrestling Federation under the alias Ludvig Borga. In the 2003 general election, he was among the top-five vote-pullers in the country with over 16,000 personal votes, gained largely from Helsinki’s housing estates. Halme’s vote tally helped Soini to enter parliament under the proportional representation system used in Finland.
In UKIP’s case, a similar task fell to Robert Kilroy-Silk, a former Labour MP and university lecturer, who had become a national celebrity after hosting his own chat show on television. As Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin have described in their book Revolt on the Right, during his candidacy in the 2004 European elections, Kilroy-Silk began to dominate UKIP’s media coverage and helped broaden its appeal.
Regarding policy, resilient EU criticism and a willingness to challenge prevailing immigration policies by stressing their negative side-effects have played a central role in the visibility of both UKIP and the Finns Party. Since both have offered alternative views and rhetoric compared to the mainstream parties, journalists have also had something worth reporting on – a break from the political norm.
The highly visible anti-immigration stance pursued by each party has also attracted supporters and candidates whose own opinions do not bear public scrutiny particularly well. As a result, both UKIP and the Finns Party have been repeatedly accused of holding xenophobic and discriminatory views against minorities and immigrants. Typically, the accusations have concerned party members’ or candidates’ statements on social media platforms, spaces less amenable to party spin and scrutiny.
Although this kind of publicity can be – and often is – damaging, it also gives parties an opportunity to respond publicly. Defending themselves against criticism provides their leaders and spokespersons a chance to explain and market their parties’ agendas. While many voters find anti-immigrant statements deplorable, others respond more positively and welcome such views.
UKIP and the Finns Party have been characteristically male-dominated parties, as men have been and remain over-represented among their candidates, representatives and voters. These parties have offered a political alternative to voters who feel equality has ‘gone too far’. The views not only on immigrants but also on gay rights, feminism and the role of women in working life expressed by the membership of both parties have created headlines – and provided the parties with free space in the media to promote their world-views and values.
Interestingly, too, these parties’ rising support has become a topic in its own right and created further headlines. Additionally, their growing success in the opinion polls has ensured both Farage and Soini places in their respective televised leaders’ debates. Prior to the 2011 general election, there was extensive public discussion on whether the Finns Party should be invited to a leaders’ debate that traditionally included only the leaders of the three largest parties.
Since Soini’s party was the smallest in the parliament at that time, the TV broadcasters’ decision to invite him instead of leaders from mid-sized partiers was met with criticism. The rationale for his inclusion was principally the party’s rapid rise in the opinion polls. A similar debate occurred in the UK before the 2015 election, as broadcasters offered a plan to invite Farage to the live debates, alongside David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. The original, much criticised, plan was later revised to include all leaders of the seven main political parties.
Both Farage and Soini’s media relations have two main qualities: they feel at home with journalists and are skilled in using their allocated airtime to their advantage. However, in a typically populist manner, both men are equally ready to accuse the ‘media elite’ of being biased against their parties.
After the general election in April, a new phase is beginning in Finnish politics, as the Finns Party is now entering government. The party has become the second largest in the country and is in the middle of negotiations on the next government’s platform. Proportional representation and the normality of coalition governments have made it easier for the Finns Party to make a breakthrough in national politics compared to its UK equivalent.
Due to the UK’s first-past-the-post system, which tends to penalise smaller parties, UKIP gained only one seat in the general election. Although the party’s share of votes increased by 9.5 per cent from the 2010 election, Farage was unable to win a parliament seat and resigned. However, a few days later he revised his decision and decided to continue as the leader of UKIP.
After 18 years of leadership, Soini’s position remains solid. His next challenge is to convince his voters that it is necessary for every party to make compromises in a coalition government. In this case, his media skills will be needed once again.
Note: This article originally appeared at our partner site, Democratic Audit, and gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Mari K. Niemi – University of Turku / University of Strathclyde
Dr. Mari K. Niemi is a Senior Researcher at the University of Turku and a Visiting researcher at the University of Strathclyde.