Vilhelm Junnila. Photo: EEVA-MARIA BROTHERUS/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images
Finland’s controversial new economic affairs minister Vilhelm Junnila has resigned, amid a controversy over his “jokey” references to white supremacist ideology, including the Nazi phrase “Heil Hitler.”"Despite the trust of the party and the parliamentary group, I see things like this: for the continuation of the government and Finland's reputation, I think it is impossible for me to continue as a minister in a satisfactory way," Junnila was quoted as saying by Finland’s public broadcaster YLE.
Junnila’s resignation came just two days after he narrowly survived a no-confidence motion in parliament, put forward by an opposition party amid concerns that the newly-appointed minister – a member of far-right, anti-immigration party The Finns – had been dog-whistling his extremist beliefs to supporters.These included comments he had made in March to a fellow party member who had been given the candidate number “88,” which in white supremacist circles is shorthand for the Nazi phrase: “Heil Hitler.”"Congratulations for the excellent candidate number. I know it's a winning card. Obviously, this ‘88’ refers to two H letters, which we won't say more about," Junnila said at a campaign event. Junnila, whose party narrowly came second in the April elections, and forms a key part of a coalition government that took office last week, has also faced scrutiny for speaking at a far-right event in 2019, which featured a line-up of right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis, including the since-banned Nordic Resistance Movement.Since the controversy erupted last week, Junnila has come under further scrutiny over social media posts he has made in the past, including a 2014 post featuring a photo of a snowman resembling a hooded Ku Klux Klan member holding a noose, and another the same year showing a gate featuring a swastika, with a comment noting how much he liked the design. His campaign in the 2015 parliamentary elections featured the word “gas,” which analysts say is a dog-whistle to neo-Nazis.
Junnila expressed his regret last week, insisting he condemned antisemitism and describing his comments as “silly and childish” jokes. But, proposing the motion on Tuesday night, Green Party MP Hanna Holopainen said that that excuse didn’t wash."The connections to far-right movements are not a single mistake, misunderstanding or bad humour, but rather repeated, systematic and comradely liaison," she said, saying the country’s international reputation could suffer from Junnila holding a ministerial post.The no-confidence motion was ultimately voted down by 95 votes to 86 on Wednsday – with seven MPs from Junnila’s coalition partner the Swedish People's Party voting against him.Finland's new Prime Minister Petteri Orpo had said Wednesday that the episode should serve as “a very serious warning” to Junnila about what was expected of him in a ministerial role. But analysts say the episode has highlighted major concerns about the presence of far-right figures like Junnila in the new government. They said that “jokey” – and potentially plausibly deniable – references to far-right slogans was common practice among far-right politicians around the world to dog-whistle their support of extremist ideology to their base, as they attempt to shift their ideas into the mainstream.“Such ‘humour’ seems to serve a strategic function as it allows these radical right politicians to deny clear commitment to far-right extremist ideas while still showing sympathy to them,” Riku Löf, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, told VICE News.
“It seems that they are slowly chipping away any moral constraints of publicly espousing even extreme right-wing ideas. “Löf said the fact that Junnila had survived the vote of no-confidence on Wednesday, after having been exposed for dog-whistling his support for Nazism, was a major cause for concern.“I have real concern as the more moderate right-wing parties in the governing coalition are turning a blind eye when a minister puts forward such far-right extremist ideas,” he said. “It seems that another line has been crossed.”He said that The Finns’ more conservative coalition partners in government did not seem to have appreciated the real threat of extremist ideology seeping into the mainstream.“As they tolerate ever more extremist people in such high positions, it seems like a slippery slope towards public acceptance of authoritarian attitudes and policies,” he said.