Finland's new political force poses euro questions

Fri Mar 25, 2011 1:23pm EDT

Related Topics

* Support for anti-euro True Finns party on the rise

* Taps voter frustration with status quo, economic anxiety

* Risk of Finnish EU policy shift seen remote for now

By Jussi Rosendahl and Terhi Kinnunen

HELSINKI, March 25 (Reuters) - A once-obscure populist party with roots in the Finnish countryside has become a sudden political sensation, riding a wave of voter discontent with everything from immigration to bailouts for other euro members.

Led by a charismatic, plain-speaking politician, the True Finns have tapped into voters' economic fears and their frustration with a political establishment tainted by scandal.

Less than a month before an April 17 election, the party's support in surveys has leapt to nearly 20 percent from a little more than 4 percent at an election in 2007.

Analysts say they see little chance that the True Finns will succeed in getting Finland to turn its back on the European Union or the euro any time soon. Even party leader Timo Soini says this will not happen overnight.

But if the party's popularity grows it could force the country to take a tougher line in EU talks, much as Slovakia did last year over aid for Greece. A proposal to get wealthy EU members to boost guarantees for a euro rescue fund, set to be decided after the Finnish election, will be a major test.

Tuomo Martikainen, a professor at Helsinki University, said Finnish people had become much more disenchanted with the three main parties -- the leftist Social Democrats, the right-leaning National Coalition and the centrist Centre Party.

Combinations of those three have run the country for decades and voters feel they have lost touch with the people. A scandal over political funding, which some say helped usher in a change of leadership at the Centre Party, added to the image problem.

"With the three old parties too similar to each other, citizens find it hard to understand their role in politics," Martikainen said.

According to a recent study by Finnish Business and Policy Forum, nearly four out of five Finns think political parties have drifted further away from ordinary people's problems.

In contrast, Soini, head of the True Finns since 1997, has crafted an image as a man of the people.

"Soini has broken the traditional rhetoric, which people hate. He can also create an emotional reaction, talking about traditional values and poor people," Martikainen said.

The party's appeal goes beyond the anti-euro rhetoric, although that has certainly helped. Finns, who have one of the highest tax burdens in the world, have become outraged at the prospect of bailing out euro member countries elsewhere.

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Finnish party politics

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NATION IN DECLINE?

The True Finns and the three main parties each have between 17 and 21 percent support in polls. Soini's party would need to pull away in a big way to prevent the kind of horse-trading that would allow the traditional parties to dominate once again.

But by joining the stage with the other three, the True Finns have managed to start a debate over EU policy and frame it as a moral question that concerns everybody.

Erik Johansson, 62, a pensioner who runs the True Finns sparse campaign office in Helsinki, was a member of the Social Democratic Party before switching sides.

"In the Social Democratic Party ordinary members were not taken into account enough," the former construction worker said.

There is no shortage of things to worry ordinary people.

For the first time since a national crisis in the early 1990s, the broad trend in joblessness in Finland has worsened in the past few years. The economy's rebound from the global financial crisis has done little to help unemployment rates.

The country's flagship company, Nokia (NOK1V.HE), is worth only slightly more than a fifth of what it was in late 2007. At one time a symbol of can-do spirit for Finns, the company has been shedding jobs and losing market share.

Finland's other famous industry is timber, but over the past half-decade eight large mills have been closed as the sector tries to deal with a glut of paper capacity.

In the face of all that, True Finn candidates have managed to come across as real people with genuine concerns.

"The party's line on different issues has been set, but each candidate can have their own opinion," Johansson said.

For instance, immigration has become a bigger topic. "I accept work related immigration, but many (immigrants) come here for social reasons," he said. "There are 500,000 Finns, who have it tough. They should be helped first."

For his part, Soini has rejected the notion that the True Finns are xenophobic.

"It is OK to come to Finland when you have work, when you have a work permit. Welcome. The issue that irritates people is when you come here and don't learn the language and you are living at the expense of the others," he recently told Reuters. (Reporting by Jussi Rosendahl and Terhi Kinnunen, writing by Adam Cox in Stockholm, editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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