Finnish eurosceptics gain local seats but lose momentum
HELSINKI (Reuters) - The anti-euro Finns Party won 12.3 percent of votes in Finnish municipal polls on Sunday, showing its popularity down from last year's national election while still strong enough to pressure the pro-Europe government.
Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen's conservative National Coalition party won the most seats with 21.9 percent of votes, followed by his coalition partners the Social Democrats with 19.6 percent.
The Finns Party was fourth, behind another opposition group, the traditionally agrarian Centre Party, which got 18.7 percent.
The vote for the Finns Party was higher than the 5 percent it won in 2008 local elections but a disappointment for leader Timo Soini whose fiery anti-euro rhetoric struck a chord with voters in last year's general elections, helping it secure 19 percent of votes.
The party's rise has forced the government to demand collateral in exchange for helping rescue Greece and Spain, and analysts said it now appeared to be a more established political force.
"This result means they might permanently rise into a middle-sized or even a big political power in Finland," said Ville Pernaa, researcher at Turku University's Centre for Parliamentary Studies. "But today they did not achieve the standing that would have mixed up the whole political scene like they did last year."
Racist and homophobic remarks by some Finns Party members may have turned some voters away, according to some analysts, while others said the government's insistence on collateral for loans may have appeased some eurosceptic voters.
Finland, having dutifully followed EU fiscal rules, is one of the few remaining countries in the euro zone to keep its triple-A credit rating.
The National Coalition has been pushing for fiscal reforms, including steps to improve efficiency in municipal spending, particularly in the sparsely populated countryside.
Opposition groups including the Centre and Finns Party have said such reforms could mean people in the countryside will be left with less, or more distant, access to basic services such as medical care.
Fears of such cuts have added to some voters' frustration over Finland's participation in EU rescue plans.
Many feel they are rewarding profligate countries while facing austerity at home, although most voters believe euro membership has provided stability and helped Finland emerge from the shadows of the former Soviet Union and neighbor Sweden.
Soini said the results were weaker than he expected but put on a brave face, saying his party more than doubled its seats in municipalities and would continue challenging the government on its euro policies.
"The euro crisis has not disappeared. We will see more bad news before Christmas," he said.
(Reporting by Ritsuko Ando and Jussi Rosendahl; Editing by Jon Hemming and Jason Webb)
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