Conservatives take second powerful post in Finland

AP News
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Posted: Feb 06, 2012 10:22 AM
Conservatives take second powerful post in Finland

The victory for Finland's conservatives in the presidential runoff marks a political watershed in the Nordic country, restoring the National Coalition Party to the presidency after 30 years and giving it the nation's two top posts for the first time.

But few changes are expected in Finland's foreign and domestic policies, given the country's long-standing tradition of coalition governments that rule by consensus.

Former Finance Minister Sauli Niinisto won Sunday's runoff election with 63 percent of the votes against Greens candidate Pekka Haavisto's 37 percent. The win follows last year's victory of the conservatives in parliamentary elections when they became Finland's largest party for the first time and took the prime minister's post.

When Niinisto takes office next month, it will be the first time Finland is headed by both a conservative prime minister and president. It also will end 30 years of rule by Social Democratic presidents.

"The conservative party has now really come out from under a shadow. Its popularity is soaring," Olavi Borg, a political analyst, said Monday.

The conservative-leaning Turun Sanomat hailed Niinisto's victory, saying he had succeeded "in meeting the goal which the conservative party has held since 1956," when the previous conservative president's term ended.

The National Coalition Party's successive victories means a new era in Finnish politics and for the party that languished in the shadow of Moscow's influence in Finland during the Cold War.

Finland, which is not a NATO member, walked a fine tightrope between East and West by adopting a practice known as "Finlandization," meaning the country deferred to Russia on major political decisions. In exchange, the Kremlin gave it tacit approval for a free-market economy and Western lifestyle.

The conservatives were "outsiders" in this political landscape having no links to leaders in Moscow, Borg said.

"The Soviets interfered in Finnish politics, particularly when it came to decisions about top positions and by supporting candidates of their choice to keep out right-leaning elements from the government," Borg said. "That didn't really end completely until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991."

The conservative party broke 21 years of being in the opposition when it joined the Social Democrats in government in 1987. It has since been in various coalitions, gradually increasing popularity until the 2011 election when it won more than 20 percent of the votes, ahead of the Social Democrats and the populist True Finns party.

Finland's president has a largely ceremonial role and is not directly involved in daily politics, but takes the lead on non-EU matters of foreign policy and plays a role as a "brand ambassador" of Finland overseas.

The head of state is also seen as an important shaper of public opinion at home and serves as a figurehead for the country abroad.

"The president plays a very important role in Finland _ he's above daily politics and influences how people think. That's why he has to be reliable and render a good impression abroad," said Melissa Nieminen, 30, a nurse in Helsinki who voted for Niinisto. "Niinisto is the right man for the job."

Niinisto replaces Tarja Halonen, the country's only female head of state and one of its most popular leaders, who has served the maximum two six-year terms.

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Jari Tanner contributed to this report.