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Finnish government renounces racism after a summer rocked by racist scandals

Finnish government leaders hold press conference in Helsinki, on combatting racism, 31 August 2023
Finnish government leaders hold press conference in Helsinki, on combatting racism, 31 August 2023 Copyright Julia Kahelin, valtioneuvoston kanslia
Copyright Julia Kahelin, valtioneuvoston kanslia
By David Mac Dougall with AFP
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Members of the four-party right-wing coalition claim they are all now on board with new measures to fight discrimination and racism.

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The Finnish government unveiled a new plan Thursday to try and shake off the stigma of racism that has marred the first months of Prime Minister Petteri Orpo's right-wing coalition government. 

The plan is aimed at combating racism and anti-Semitism, including a new law to criminalise Holocaust denial and plans to possibly ban Nazi and Communist symbols – although that could prove legally difficult. 

"Every minister in the government renounces racism and is committed to actively combating it", Orpo told a press conference in Helsinki, where leaders pledged up to €1.5 million to bring in the 23 measures outlined in the plan.

The government was pushed into action only after it was rocked by repeated scandals since forming in June. 

Rikka Purra, finance minister, and leader of the far-right Finns Party, had to apologise for past racist comments she made online after being condemned by her government colleagues. 

The incendiary words she shared in 2008, particularly against immigration, Islam and racism, as well as threats of violence, have resurfaced.

In June, another Finns Party minister, Vilhelm Junnila, announced his resignation after holding on to the economy portfolio for just 10 days, following an outcry over earlier comments favourable to the Nazis, and racist positions calling on African women to have more abortions to combat the climate crisis. 

During the last legislative campaign, Junnila joked about his candidate number, 88, a number used by neo-Nazi groups to mark their allegiance to Hitler.

Junnila's replacement as economy minister, Wille Rydman, was also caught up in a racist scandal after Finland's main newspaper published messages he had sent to a former girlfriend. 

In them, Rydman suggested that Somalis spread like weeds, and shared lyrics to a song apparently penned by another Finns Party MP whose lyrics talked about a Muslim who leaves his home country and rapes a woman. Rydman suggested to his ex-girlfriend that the song could be ideally sung at student parties.

Minister Rydman complained about headscarves that some Muslim women wear, and described people from the Middle East as "monkeys" and "desert monkeys." 

Other Finns Party ministers had to clarify their positions on the ethno-nationalist 'Great Replacement' theory, which they had previously seemed to support. The false conspiracy theory posits that white Europeans will be replaced by foreigners, especially Muslims, and quickly become a minority in their own countries.

The speaker of the Finnish parliament, also a Finns Party MP, has a decades-long history of writing racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments online. He and other Finns Party MPs have convictions for racist comments or writings. 

Scandals triggered tensions within coalition government

The ongoing scandals triggered major tensions within the four-party coalition government, leading to clashes in particular between the previously moderate and socially liberal Swedish People's Party (SFP), and the far-right populist Finns Party. 

The Swedish People's Party had demanded apologies from all the Finns Party ministers caught up in racist comments, but none were forthcoming. 

Repeated pronouncements from the party's leader Anna-Maja Henriksson that SFP had zero tolerance towards racism began to sound hollow when they were trotted out repeatedly over the summer, as each new racist scandal unfolded.

Today she hailed the new anti-discrimination plan as "historic." 

"The communication is a clear indication that the government does not accept racism of any kind, and confirms that the government and all its ministers are committed to active anti-racism work and the promotion of equality and non-discrimination," she said in a statement Thursday.

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SFP, with 10 members of parliament, has the power to collapse the government if it wants, but after some protestations and wavering, it appears to have chosen to remain in power. 

However, next week will see the Finnish Parliament hold votes of confidence in both Riikka Purra and Wille Rydman, called by the opposition Left Alliance and Greens. 

If the SFP's MPs do not support both Purra and Rydman, then the government will likely fall.

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