March 19, 2007 / 12:10 AM / in 12 years

Finnish Center clings to power in election

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finnish opposition conservatives made strong gains in a general election on Sunday, coming a close second to the ruling Center Party and staking a claim to a place in a new coalition government.

Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, who is also Center Party Chairman, casts his vote during the Finnish general elections in a local school in Nurmijarvi near Helsinki March 18, 2007. REUTERS/Sari Gustafsson/Lehtikuva

The center-right National Coalition Party won 50 seats in the 200-member parliament — one fewer than the Center Party, but ahead of the 45 of the Social Democrats (SDP), the current partners in the cabinet, preliminary results showed.

The ballot, marking 100 years of elections in Finland, gives Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen the right to form a new four-year coalition.

“The result is clear. We are number 1 in votes and number 1 in seats,” he told cheering supporters at a Helsinki hotel.

National Coalition leader Jyrki Katainen, whose party came ahead of the SDP for the first time, said it had won the right to join a new cabinet.

“The National Coalition has taken a landslide victory,” he told reporters. “I think it would be very odd if we were not in the next government.”

Full results showed the Center Party with 23.1 percent of the vote, the conservatives at 22.3 percent and SDP with 21.4.

Four years ago the Center Party narrowly edged out the SDP, winning the premiership and ending eight years of coalition between the SDP and the conservatives.

Vanhanen indicated a new government might need to include four parties this time. Such wide coalitions have been common in the consensus-minded Nordic country and would not raise concerns about possible instability.

CLEAN CAMPAIGNING

The Finns’ swing to the right comes six months after neighboring Swedes voted out the Social Democrats and elected a center-right coalition. However, the Finnish outcome was unlikely to mark as dramatic a shift as in Sweden.

On the campaign trail politicians politely avoided confrontation with potential allies, and all tried to address the top concerns of voters, including social services, job-creation and issues like climate change.

Finland’s rapidly aging population was also a major issue, and Sunday’s election was likely to be the last where employed people make up a majority of voters.

Disappointed SDP leader Eero Heinaluoma, the current finance minister, said his party had failed to make its voice heard. “We clearly could not get our message across to voters,” he said.

Finland, home to Nokia, the world’s biggest mobile phone maker, has enjoyed the strongest growth of all euro zone economies, but many Finns worry the good times may not last.

It faces rising competition from lower-cost countries in some key industries, including high technology, electronics and paper-making.

“I’m worried,” said Irmeli Ahola, an SDP supporter who works in the Social Affairs and Health Ministry. “I feel the direction the welfare society is taking looks worrying. I do not trust in the conservatives’ promises.”

Additional reporting by Tarmo Virki, John Acher and Rex Merrifield

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