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Jussi Halla-aho, quiet hardliner behind Finland's populist uproar

Jussi Halla-aho's campaigning on a hardline anti-immigration stance, which also questioned the need for action on climate change, electrified the campaign in Finland
Jussi Halla-aho's campaigning on a hardline anti-immigration stance, which also questioned the need for action on climate change, electrified the campaign in Finland Jussi Halla-aho's campaigning on a hardline anti-immigration stance, which also questioned the need for action on climate change, electrified the campaign in Finland Lehtikuva/AFP
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Helsinki (AFP)

Jussi Halla-aho, who led his nationalist Finns Party to more than double its seats in parliament in Finland's election, is a former medieval language lecturer turned hardline MEP and vehement critic of immigration and Islam.

Less than six months ago, the Finns Party languished in fifth place in the polls ahead of an election where health reform and austerity looked to be the key battlegrounds.

But the 47-year-old Halla-aho's campaigning on a hardline anti-immigration stance, which also questioned the need for action on climate change, electrified the campaign and brought in new waves of supporters whom the pollsters believe would not otherwise have voted at all.

The Finns Party won 39 seats in the election, up from 17 in 2015, finishing just one short of the largest party, the leftist Social Democrats.

The European Parliament member -- whose hobbies include astronomy and shooting -- has been described by Finnish media as giving a "tense and even shy impression" when being centre stage on television, and is said to be uncomfortable in the limelight.

"When I drafted my speech today, I didn't know what kind of results to expect," he told a joyous crowd of Finns Party supporters at the group's election after-party on Sunday.

"I see now that this speech is dull, and that's of course partly because of my monotonously boring personality," he said, to rapturous applause.

- Nationalist radical -

Halla-aho, a softly spoken academic, cuts a stark contrast to his predecessor as head of the Finns Party, the more moderate and larger-than-life Timo Soini, who stepped down in 2017 and was known for his erratic and at times boisterous public appearances.

While Halla-aho speaks gently, his writing is more inflammatory -- his star rose partly due to his explicit writings against immigration and Islam.

Finland's highest court in 2012 upheld a conviction and fines against him for inciting ethnic hatred and blasphemy in 2008.

In a blog post, he condemned Islam and described Somalis as living off taxpayers' money. Halla-aho had pleaded not guilty, arguing that he had merely used sarcastic examples to highlight a "double standard" for what is allowed to be published in Finland.

Under Halla-aho, the Finns Party has shifted from a eurosceptic, populist movement that claims to look out for the working classes to a more nationalist, far-right organisation that wants to cut refugee intake to "almost zero".

In 2017, he demanded that the European Commission penalise civic organisations rescuing migrants from drowning when their ships founder in the Mediterranean.

- 'I've made mistakes' -

Born in the southern town of Tampere on April 27, 1971, Halla-aho studied hotel and restaurant management after leaving high school.

In 1995, he began studying Russian at the University of Helsinki where he also taught Old Church Slavonic before embarking on his political career.

Halla-aho is a married father of four, but Finnish media revealed in 2017 that he has a fifth child out of wedlock.

"I've made mistakes in my private life that I cannot undo," he said in a Facebook post.

"I've asked forgiveness from those who are associated with the matter and I have lived with the consequences as best as I can."

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