Meet Timo Soini, and you cannot fail to fall under the spell of his charm. Humorous and and friendly, with a good sense of repartee, he does not give the impression of being loudmouthed or stupid. And although he is deeply pious, he remains discreet on the subject of his religious beliefs.

Demonstrating a mastery of the background to political issues, his answers to questions are usually to the point. But he is also an outspoken populist intent on surfing the wave of ambient discontent with a ready supply of simplistic responses to complex questions.

Timo Soini is the leader of the True Finns: a political party that until recently was consigned to the sidelines of Finnish politics, which in the 2007 general elections obtained a modest 4.1% of the vote.

But four years is a long time in politics, and the most recent opinion polls show support for the party has suddenly increased to 17 % – an upsurge that has taken the country’s institutions by surprise, and elevated the True Finns to a position on a par with the country’s three mainstream parties: Kokoomus or the National Coalition Party, the Centre Party and the Social Democratic Party.

True Finns will be difficult to keep out of the next government

Today, in the wake of the most rapid rise in decades of Finnish politics and with only two months remaining until general elections, Timo Soini’s True Finns are almost on a level with the social democrats (17.3 %).

Timo Soini’s popularity is first and foremost the result of a crisis in Finnish democracy. For years, every election in the country has been followed by a bout of squabbles between future coalition partners, which has led to an increasing sense of powerlessness and frustration among voters. Voter turnout in Finland is lower than it is in any other Nordic country — 67.9% for the 2007 general elections, as opposed to 84.6% in the most recent Swedish elections.

Figures for Soini’s support should certainly be taken with a pinch of salt, but all the indications are that his party will take 10% of the vote in general elections. If that is the case, the True Finns will become the fourth ranked political force in the country, and it will be difficult to keep them out of the next government. Soini has solemnly announced that his party will obtain at least two ministerial posts, and that he himself has set his sights on the Ministry for Employment and the Economy.

Finnish withdrawal from the European Union and restrictions on immigration

At the same time, we should bear in mind that there is a major difference between politics in Finland and in Sweden. In Sweden, virtually none of the party leaders are willing to risk being associated with the far right Sweden Democrats, while in Finland, the True Finns are perceived as credible alternative. This is notably due to the fact that the party has no neo-Nazi past, but was in fact created by Timo Soini himself, who cut his political teeth in the Finnish Rural Party, a populist party of the 1970s led by the legendary Veikko Vennamo.

A talented orator, Vennamo was reponsible for a number of phrases that have marked the history of Finnish politics, most notably kyllä kansa tietää [Yes, the people know]. This is precisely the tradition that Soini aims to perpetuate, while presenting himself as the guardian of the interests of the little people and an opponent of the establishment.

His main hobbyhorses are Finnish withdrawal from the European Union and restrictions on immigration. He also believes that Finland should abandon the Kyoto Protocol and that the Church should oppose same-sex marriage. Soini is very careful to distinguish himself from racists, and often refers to his Roman Catholic faith (he converted to Catholicism when he was a student in the 1980s) as proof of his conviction that all men are equal.

Soini has become a darling of the media

His detractors have remarked that his demagoguery appeals to a xenophobic section of the electorate, and that he deliberately allows these voters to believe that he represents their values. In reality, Timo Soini’s line on immigration policy has little to do with his success, which is primarily due to his ability to reach out to the growing fringe of voters that have given up on politics.

Much to the annoyance of established politicians, who complain that the nation’s journalists are too busy admiring his rise to power to ask him any difficult questions, Soini has become a darling of the media. That said, Timo Soini’s credibility was recently dented by the launch of his climate programme, which turned out to be a cut-and-paste of a document produced by the Metalliliitto [metal workers’ union], with all of the original typos. However, he has acknowledge his mistake and is continuing to plow ahead as though nothing had happened.

One solution for the “established parties” could be to give the True Finns a place in the next government: in the hope that, like Veikko Vennamo, they will be unable to deliver on their election promises and will be wiped out in subsequent elections. But there is no guarantee that this strategy will actually work, which is why the mainstream political parties are still nervously wondering what to do.