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Euroskeptic Finnish Party Makes Big Gains

Timo Soini, leader of the populist True Finn Party, which has won a surprising 19 percent of the vote in FInland's general election.

Timo Soini, leader of the populist True Finn Party, which has won a surprising 19 percent of the vote in FInland's general election.

A nationalist euroskeptic party has made big gains in Finland's general election, potentially complicating Europe's plans to rescue debt-ridden economies.

The True Finns party won nearly a fifth of the vote in the poll on April 17 -- more than quadrupling its current share -- giving it 39 seats in the 200-seat parliament.

That puts them behind the Social Democrats with 42 seats and the center-right National Coalition in first place with 44 seats.

The Center Party of Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi slumped to just 15.8 percent of the vote and said it would go into opposition.

True Finns' Popularity Reflects Frustration

True Finns' leader Timo Soini told reporters he expected his party to be included in talks on forming a coalition administration and that he hoped it would be part of "a majority government."

"Then we will negotiate with the other parties, who are coming into the coalition, what the future should be and what the line concerning European Union issues [should be]," he added.

The True Finns' surge in popularity partly reflects widespread frustration in Finland, eurozone member, over the financial burden of bailing out countries with floundering economies such as Greece, Ireland, and Portugal.
Outgoing Finnish Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi's Center Party slumped to fourth place in the polls.

The party has said it doesn't see why Finland should rescue Europe's "squanderers."

Matti Pietilainen, a Finnish voter, believes that the bail-outs were a major factor in the election.

"The way the True Finns made things public, and brought things forward to the ordinary people in a way they could understand, counted a lot," he said. "Besides, the mess surrounding Portugal and Greece is clearly showing in this election's result."

Soini said he expects there will be changes made to the European Union's planned bailout for Portugal.

Finland's parliament has the right to vote on EU requests for bailout funds, meaning a delay in the Portugal rescue package is possible -- though National Coalition leader Jyrki Katainen, the likely new prime minister, played down the idea that Finland would cause difficulties.

"Finland has always been a responsible problem solver, not causing problems," he said. "This is about a common European cause."

A European Commission spokeswoman, Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, told reporters on April 18 that the EU expects Finland to live up to its financial obligations to the eurozone bailout fund.

"We are not willing to fuel any speculations," she said. "We are confident that Finland will honor its general commitments."

Europe's Mainstream Parties Losing Ground

Finland is the latest EU country to see mainstream parties losing ground to far-right politicians and parties with anti-immigrant and antieuro ideologies.

Although Finland has relatively few immigrants, the True Finns party unveiled a manifesto at the end of February with an anti-immigrant tone, according to Jan Sundberg, a professor of political science at the University of Helsinki.

Sundberg says it denounced immigration as not solving labor shortages, and suggested instead that Finnish women should give birth to more children.

"They don't approve of immigration at all," he says.

Sundberg says anxiety at high unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor boosted the party's appeal.

"There is a two-fold problem. One is this about social policy and the other is about nationalism and immigration," he says.

"And you have similar parties -- a lot of them -- in Europe at the moment that are xenophobic and all these kinds of, right-wing populism. I mean, that's nothing new in the European Union, [but] it has not been strong in Finland for a long time, and now it's popping up again."

Elsewhere in Europe, France's far-right National Front party, headed by Marine Le Pen, recently made gains in last month's regional elections against President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party.

And the fiercely anti-immigrant head of the Dutch Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders, who campaigns to "end the Islamization of the Netherlands," enjoys considerable support -- as does his party. In a 2010 national vote, the Party for Freedom more than doubled its seats in Parliament, from nine to 24.

Speaking when Finland was going to the polls on April 17, Soini attempted to downplay fears about the True Finns' agenda.

"We are a negotiable party and, as you can see, everybody says that they can come with us to the government," he said.

"That is not what is normally happening in Europe, if you are labeled to be some kind of a new wave party. We are not extremists, so you can sleep safely."

compiled from agency reports