* 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 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,"
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.
Finnish party politics
Interactive graphic r.reuters.com/hud78r
Scenarios: Finland and EU policy [ID:nLDE72N0PP]
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)