Finland election a crucial test for EU bailouts

AP News
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Posted: Apr 15, 2011 9:58 AM
Finland election a crucial test for EU bailouts

When Finns elect a new Parliament on Sunday, they'll also effectively be voting on bailouts to Portugal and other cash-strapped European economies.

A nationalist opposition party, the True Finns, is expected to make strong gains in the ballot, riding popular support for a platform of immigration cuts and opposition to lifelines for the eurozone's debt-ridden members.

The True Finns say Finnish taxpayers are being unjustly burdened by "squanderers" in the 17-nation eurozone, noting that no one rushed to the Nordic country's aid during its own financial crisis in the 1990s. Finland is now among the most fiscally prudent in the group.

Finland's voice matters for Europe: any bailout requires the unanimous support of all eurozone members. And unlike other countries, where the government decides whether to approve rescue funds, it's Parliament that makes the call in Finland.

Even if the True Finns don't make it into the government after Sunday's vote _ polls show them with 15-20 percent support _ Finland's participation in future bailouts could be in doubt. The leader of the main opposition Social Democrats has hinted they, too, might oppose more bailouts, demanding that banks and creditors also bear responsibility.

"Europe is worried. There hasn't been such interest before in elections in Finland," said Olavi Borg, professor emeritus in political sciences.

True Finns' leader Timo Soini says he will vote against new bailouts whether his party is in the next coalition government or not.

"We are against any new contributions to bailouts. This is not the way to do it," Soini told The Associated Press. "Banks have to be made responsible for lending money too freely and countries in trouble should sell their assets."

The EU's unanimity rules on approving bailouts or changing their conditions mean if one country steps out of line the system would crash, severely undermining the credibility of the eurozone that has worked hard to present a united front during the divisive debt crisis. It could also exacerbate it at a precarious moment when decisions are expected on whether bailouts will end with Portugal or will also be needed for larger economies like Spain or Italy.

Finland currently is responsible for some euro8 billion ($11.5 billion) in guarantees of a total euro440 billion ($634 billion) agreed by the eurozone for its main bailout fund, but those are likely to go up significantly as the currency union completes a promised boost of the fund's lending capacity. Finland says it cannot agree to any new commitments until a new Parliament, and government, are in place.

"I don't think Finnish taxpayers should cough up any money for Portugal. Bailouts are just wasted money _ like throwing cash into a bottomless pit," said Henri Nylund, a 23-year-old jobseeker. "Countries that overspend should not be helped but punished for their stupidity."

Some 60 percent of 2,400 respondents in an April 8 survey by Think If Laboratories said they opposed bailouts, while 31 percent approved. The margin of error was 3 percentage points.

Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi's center-right government has maintained bailouts are necessary to avoid eurozone turmoil that would have a devastating impact on Finland, a small economy dependent on exports that is only now recovering from the global economic downturn.

Polls show Kiviniemi's Center Party and its main ally, the conservative National Coalition Party, can stay in power with the help of smaller partners. But it's likely to be a tight race. And if the True Finns score higher than Center or the National Coalition they cannot be ignored in coalition talks.

The True Finns only won 4 percent of votes in the last election, in 2007, but polls show their level of support has more than tripled and is approaching that of the three biggest parties _ Center, National Coalition and the Social Democrats, which each have about 20 percent.

Soini's party has managed to garner support among the unemployed and politically unmotivated in a country where voter turnout has steadily declined to an all-time low of 65 percent in 2007.

While the government says savings are badly needed to further help Finland lift itself in the recession aftermath, the True Finns advocate more defense spending and help for the sick and elderly.

In a TV commercial, True Finns' candidate Jussi Halla-Aho rejects proposals to cut welfare and defense spending, saying into the camera: "I would first cut immigration."

The nation of 5.3 million has one of the smallest foreign populations in Europe, at 3 percent. But the nationalists say it is too easy for immigrants to arrive and apply for social welfare.

The largest group of foreigners, some 55,000, are Russian speakers mainly from former Soviet countries. Finland also has a small Somali community.

Nasima Razmyar, a 26-year-old candidate for the Social Democrats who immigrated from Afghanistan with her parents when she was 5, said she thought the True Finns lacked a clear idea on how to govern.

"I think they have a really loud voice, but real acts and real policies, there's not so much," she said.

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Associated Press Television News producer David Mac Dougall contributed to this report.