When my country changed

Posted on 05. May 2014

by Sandra Grindgärds

sandra-grindgardsIn April 2011, when the parliamentary elections took place in Finland, something happened to my country. It was spring and I was having the time of my life as an Erasmus student in Rennes in France. However, on the election night I had told my friends I had to stay in. I had to follow the elections, something most of them could not understand. At this point I realized that being involved in politics was unusual among young Europeans. I am part of the 2 % of young people in Europe who is a member of a political party. The elections result was shocking. The Finns Party, a populist and nationalist party whose values are completely the opposite of my party’s, The Swedish People’s Party, and mine had won the elections.

Something radical happened to my country. Maybe the phenomena existed already before, but the elections made it official. Suddenly I came from a country where 19,1 % of the voters supports nationalism and populism, wants to limit immigration, opposes same-sex marriage and sees EU as something evil.

One fifth of the voters agreed with the Finns Party who not only accepts racist actions but also questions the minority I belong to, the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. They advocate measures, which would weaken the status of my mother tongue Swedish, one of Finland’s two national languages. The rise of nationalism in Finland was for me no longer a societal phenomenon, but also a personal issue. My mother tongue is something more than just the language I speak. It is part of my identity and my culture. When the election results indicated that a lot of Finns question my right to exist in my country, I felt disappointed and could not recognize my own country anymore.

I felt a strong need to speak out and show the supporters of the Finns Party and the rest of Finland and Europe that racism, nationalism and isolation are not a solution to challenging economical times. I moved back to Finland and became the vice president of my party’s youth organization. We felt that our role as a social liberal and pro-European actor in Finnish politics was more important than before. The nationalist had attracted voters from many parties, but also people who usually do not vote. This shows the importance of including people into society and into politics from an early stage onwards. In particular, a focus on young people is important.

We are now approaching elections again; the European Parliament elections. Polls once more show great support for nationalist parties all over Europe, in my country, polls show a support of 15- 17 per cent for the Finns Party. The typical Finns Party supporter is a man, 60 +, from the countryside who identify himself as working class, but in the last elections also young people supported the Finns Party. In 2011 the support for the Finns Party among young people increased as much as the support for the party in general did. However, the Finns Party is also one of the parties young people question the most in Finland.

It is essential that these young people turn up at the polling station in May to show their support for the EU. The economic crisis has hit young people the hardest. The current situation can lead to frustration that nationalists address by providing simplified solutions to complex problems. Unemployment and the sense of lack of job security are defined as a central factor for the rise of populist movements in Finland.

So, what has to be done to increase young peoples voting activity in Finland? First of all there need to be young candidates on the candidate lists with resources to run a reliable campaign. My youth organization succeeded to get three excellent young candidates nominated and also found resources for them to run an active campaign. To get young people to the polling stations I believe it is also important to discuss issues of stake for young people, but also give young people opportunities to be involved in the campaign, either as candidates or as activists.

Further, being a young candidate you have to convince voters much more that you are an experienced and proficient politician than older candidates. That is why young candidates also need a strong political support. We have adopted a EU platform created by young people. In the program we highlight issues of importance to youth, but also communicate our vision of the EU.

To communicate our political stands we have launched a campaign we called “We build the EU”. We as young people build a EU, we do not consider as already finished. We created a webpage with information about our candidates, our EU-politics and information about when and where you can vote. In addition to this we have made campaign videos we distribute on social media, one of our most important tool in the elections. Some of the videos we made with our Party’s first MEP, minister Elisabeth Rehn, who is a both nationally and internationally appreciated politician. In these videos minister Rehn interviews our candidates and shows her support for them.

The last month of the campaign we also make a tour throughout Finland where we visit different places in order to reach young people. Besides parties activities to include young people in the campaign I also believe media plays an important role for mobilizing youth. It is important that media both include young candidates in their election coverage, report about them and highlight issues of importance to youth.

Politicians have failed to address issues that gave nationalists an opportunity to grow. To fight against nationalism and populism we need to insure voters, both young and older, that choosing the EU way will contribute to stability and security. As I see it we need the EU as much now as we needed it 50 years ago. The EU was created to maintain stability and peace in Europe. These core values of the EU still are essential today and need to continuously be emphasised. We, as politicians, need to better communicate our EU-politics, but better general knowledge about the EU is also needed.

It is important to fight against nationalism and racist tendencies together throughout Europe, before they become mainstream and a part of our political culture and jeopardize our common European future. Further, politicians, such as Party leaders, ministers, MPs, have to clearly contradict populist leaders. I am worried about the rise of nationalism in my country and in Europe in general. I want to be able to use my mother tongue in the future in Finland, and I also want to welcome people with different backgrounds to my country and my Europe.

This article is part a part of a series of reflections by young Europeans, prepared in cooperation between FutureLab and Süddeutsche Zeitung Online. To read the original click here.