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Finland: Mood Swings Against Prime Minister Before Elections

Prague, 19 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- By most objective indications, Finland's Social Democratic Party (SDP) Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen faces a tough race to stay in power after Sunday's (March 21) general elections.

The most recent public-opinion polls show an almost even division between Finland's three main parties --the Social Democrats, the Center Party and the Conservatives. According to analysts in Helsinki, these results suggest that only an unusually high voter turnout --of about 70 percent-- can salvage Lipponen's chances of re-election. But, they add, such a turnout is unlikely, since the polls also show that SDP supporters form the highest share of those undecided whether to vote or not.

The Social Democrats, Finland's biggest Left-of-Center party with strong connections to the nation's powerful trade unions, currently lead a five-party coalition government that includes the Conservatives. This week, Lipponen acknowledged the public mood was swinging against his party. Speaking on television, he said: "Poll figures indicate the country could have a Right-wing [coalition] government, [But] voters still have time to think about this before Sunday."

The SDP captured 28 percent of the vote in the county's last general elections in 1995. But its popularity has diminished in the wake of a damaging cronyism [that is, favoritism for friends] scandal within its ranks last year.

Surveys now indicate young voters are shunning the SDP and flocking to the Conservatives, attracted by the prospect of a modern, more European alternative to traditional SDP national values. And Lipponen has alienated himself from his predominantly blue-collar voters because of the tough economic reforms he introduced in a successful attempt to make Finland eligible to meet the stiff criteria for joining the European Union's Economic and Monetary Union [EMU] and adopting its new currency, the euro.

But regardless of who gets what in the 200-seat parliament in Helsinki, there will likely be few domestic or international consequences for Finland. Policy differences among the three major parties are small, and none of the more controversial issues, such as nuclear power or possible membership in NATO for traditionally neutral Finland, played an important role in the campaign. In his attempt to attract the SDP's traditional voters, Lipponen promised to raise the capital gains tax from the current 28 percent, but analysts describe this as a harmless way of pleasing voters that will have little impact on business.

The opposition Center Party has promised to liberalize the labor market, which might boost the country's long-term economic prospects. But Pekka Ervasti, Senior Political Editor of Helsinki Sanomat, one of the biggest Finnish dailies, told RFE/RL today that the step would likely come at a cost:

"The Center Party has promised to reform the labor market, to liberalize it on the local level. But that is going to create problems with the trade unions..." A major clash with the trade unions might do more harm than good to the economy, at least in the short term.

Financial markets have already largely shrugged off the importance of who is going to govern Finland after the elections. With about 23 percent of the vote each, any two of the three big parties could form a government, but the markets do seem to prefer the prospect that the Social Democrats and Conservatives remain in power, mainly because of their proven track record.

With clear political choices lacking and debate on the most important issues avoided, nearly two-thirds of Finns say it does not matter who rules in Helsinki. And more than 80 percent think their democracy is not working as it should. That has led some leading analysts to conclude that this year's elections are fully exposing the negative aspects of the consensus politics which have characterized Finland since the end of World War Two.