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article imageJussi Halla-aho, Finland's populist hardliner

By AFP     Jun 10, 2017 in World

Jussi Halla-aho, newly elected leader of the populist True Finns party, is a former medieval language lecturer convicted of hate speech who has openly criticised immigration and Islam.

The European Parliament member -- whose hobbies include astronomy and shooting -- was chosen on Saturday to head a party that forms one-third of Finland's ruling coalition but which he complains has been tainted by mainstream politics.

"I myself see patriotism as the glue that unites most of our supporters -- an understanding that the primary duty of government officials in Finland is to defend Finns and their interests," Halla-aho said in March when announcing his candidacy.

Well-dressed and clean shaved, he's been described by Finnish media as giving a "tense and even shy impression" when being centre stage on television.

But in replacing the True Finns' long-time leader, moderate foreign minister Timo Soini, the 46-year-old Russian speaker could now threaten the coalition government with his anti-immigration views.

"The Finns party leadership should prioritise issues in a similar way as our supporters seemingly do," Halla-aho told Finnish public broadcaster Yle in May.

"Immigration policy and a kind of 'Finland first' mentality should have a stronger presence in our public output."

Participating in the coalition has come at a heavy price for the True Finns -- its support has more than halved from 17.7 percent in elections two years ago to 8.4 percent in a February opinion poll.

This decline, and Soini's more moderate stances, have spurred support for Halla-aho, whose star has risen 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.

- 'I've made mistakes' -

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

Jussi Halla-aho  a married father of four  was revealed in May to have a fifth child out of wedlock
Jussi Halla-aho, a married father of four, was revealed in May to have a fifth child out of wedlock
Jussi Nukari, Lehtikuva/AFP

Born in the small 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 May 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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