Climate debate in Finland helps populist party to gain last minute support

Latest polls ahead of the upcoming general election in Finland indicated the populist Finns Party has been making spurt in popularity.

The debate about climate change measures, such as giving up peat and oil heating and perhaps taxing traditional petrol cars more, seems to have switched support to the populist camp.

In the latest poll by the national broadcaster Yle on Thursday, the Finns Party rose to the second largest position with 16.3 percent backing, with the Social Democratic Party still leading with 19 percent.

In Thursday’s poll, the environment conscious Green Party went down to the fifth place with 12.2 percent. Between them was the Center Party led by the care-taker Prime Minister Juha Sipila with 14.5 percent, and the conservative National Coalition Party with 15.9 percent.

Finns Party Chairman Jussi Halla-aho said on Thursday the climate debate played a role in their rise.

Even though the Finnish general election was described late last year by many observers as a “climate election”, faltered plans by the outgoing cabinet to improve the position of market-based health care became the main topic for weeks

Last weekend, well over 10,000 people marched in Helsinki calling for faster measures to combat the climate change. Their demands appeared to have increased fear in circles listening to the Finns Party’s message.

Saska Saarikoski, a commentator for the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, said on Thursday that “well-intentioned people wanted to make this an environment election, “but in the end they only set the table for an election victory of the populist Finns.”

Nearly all Finnish parties pledged jointly late last year to make Finland carbon emissions negative by 2040. That means Finland will be producing less emission than it is tying down in soil and forests. “We go beyond carbon neutrality,” said Interior Minister Kai Mykkanen at the time.

The Finns Party did not sign the document, but admitted the existence of the climate change. One of the intentions of the joint document was to avoid that climate change becomes a divisive issue.

In terms of campaigning, most parties, except the Green Party and the Finns Party, face the problem that their traditional voter bases are split on climate issues. If the parties favor a less comfortable lifestyle to help the environment, the voters may make a last minute choice in favor of the Finns Party. But showing a moderate line in climate change combat, could drive voters to the Green camp.

Elina Kestila-Kekkonen, professor of politology at Turku University, told national broadcaster Yle earlier that the situation was particularly difficult to the conservatives. Their urban voters have often “greenish values”, but at the same time the party is also courting people preferring the use of private cars. A high profile poster campaign “autos belong to the roads” got a mixed reception.

In the national TV debate on climate change last week, party attitudes were widest apart regarding the use of peat. It is a brown soil like material formed in marshes and fens, and used for heating. Finland has no coal deposits, while peat reserves are large. As a result, parties that have owners of peat deposits in their vote base fight the idea of banning peat.

Unlike in other European Union (EU) countries, the future use of forests has been a key issue. A safe level of using the vast forest reserves for industrial needs without sacrificing the carbon sink impact has been a public theme for the past two years.

The main polarization has been between the Center Party with its forest-owner supporters and the Green Party. Centrist representative reminded at the Yle debate that the “right of owners to do whatever they want with their forests cannot be tampered with”.

The Finns party representative said Finland should renegotiate the per-country climate responsibility at the EU. “Blanket cutdowns of forests must be allowed and the coal law repealed.” A legislation to ban coal as a source of heat from 2029 was passed by parliament at the end of February.

The Social Democratic Party with their strong connections to industrial trade unions have avoided taking a stand on the forest issue. They have referred to the fact that even “experts do not agree on the forest carbon sink requirements.”