Governing Center Party wins Finnish election in tight race

The Center Party won 23.1 percent of the vote while the Conservatives had 22.3 percent and the Social Democrats 21.4.

finland pm 88 (photo credit: AP)
finland pm 88
(photo credit: AP)
The governing Center Party won Finland's parliamentary election by a razor-thin margin, but the main opposition Conservatives made strong gains to claim a possible spot in the next ruling coalition. The left-leaning Social Democrats, currently the Center Party's main coalition partner, were the big losers in Sunday's vote and could end up in opposition for the first time since 1995. However, any government change was not expected to yield major changes in the country of 5.3 million, one of Europe's most homogenous societies. "We did it," Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen said after a full vote count showed his Center Party won 51 seats in the 200-member Parliament, one more than the Conservatives. "In an election it's always easy to win from the opposition, but the most difficult thing is to renew one's victory," he told jubilant supporters. Conservative leader Jyrki Katainen also celebrated the result, which would give his party 10 new seats in Parliament. "It will be very difficult to ignore the Conservatives" in upcoming coalition talks, he said. The Social Democrats dropped eight seats to 45, the results showed, while the the third partner in the current coalition, the small Swedish People's Party, gained one seat for a total of nine. The Greens, who were hoping to benefit from growing concerns about climate change, also gained one seat to 15. The environmentalists could be invited to broaden a new center-right coalition, analysts said. Finland, home to the world's largest mobile phone maker, Nokia Corp., has a booming economy and consistently ranks high in international surveys on competitiveness. Its notoriously high unemployment rate has dropped to the European Union average under Vanhanen's government - 7.6 percent in January - but critics say he has failed to improve health care. There is broad agreement among the major parties on most policies, including on maintaining Finland's neutrality and its welfare system financed by high taxes. The Conservatives are more open to NATO membership, but were not pushing the issue because of public opposition. The Center Party won 23.1 percent of the vote while the Conservatives had 22.3 percent and the Social Democrats 21.4, according to the provisional results. Final results will be confirmed by Wednesday. "The result is not satisfying," Social Democratic leader Eero Heinaluoma said. Vanhanen's party is expected to lead informal coalition talks before the new Parliament convenes later this week. On April 17, lawmakers will choose a prime minister - usually the leader of the biggest party. Two days later, President Tarja Halonen is expected to name the new Cabinet. Pensions and care for the elderly were among the main election issues in a country where the proportion of people aged 65 or older has reached 15 percent, from 7 percent in the 1950s. A recently released book by Vanhanen's former girlfriend, exposing details about their love life, only boosted the prime minister's popularity, analysts said. Finnish news agency STT reported Sunday that Vanhanen would request that police investigate whether the book violated privacy laws. The campaigns of the main parties were fairly similar, leading to criticism that the politicians failed to present clear alternatives. Voter turnout dropped to 68 percent of the 4.3 million electorate, the lowest since World War II. The election fell on the 100th anniversary of Finland's first Parliamentary vote, which was the first worldwide to give women the right to run for office.