Finnish Euro-Skeptics Gird for Backlash in Presidential Vote

Less than a year after Timo Soini led his anti-euro “The Finns” party in a fourfold surge in Finland’s parliamentary election, voters are showing they won’t reward candidates running on a bailout-bashing agenda.

Polls show Soini may place fourth in the Jan. 22 presidential election, trailing Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen’s National Coalition candidate Sauli Niinistoe, a former banker and finance minister who led Finland into the euro in 1999.

Finland, one of four remaining AAA rated euro countries, has threatened to derail efforts to solve the debt crisis, including demanding collateral to provide emergency funds to Greece. Niinistoe, 63, as finance minister for the seven years through 2003 helped rebuild Finland’s economy after the early 1990s recession and banking crisis. He lost in 2006 to President Tarja Halonen, who’s stepping down after a two-term limit.

“The single most important topic in these elections is the economy and the euro crisis,” said Ville Pernaa, head of the Center for Parliamentary Studies at Turku University, in an interview. “If the results reflect the polls, it will be the first time “The Finns” party has suffered an election defeat since 2006. They will become more a party among others and they will need to start rebuilding their support again.”

Europe’s debt crisis is mired in its third year after Greece was forced to seek a bailout in 2010, followed by Ireland and Portugal. Italy and Greece have appointed former central bankers and bureaucrats as their prime ministers to push through unpopular austerity measures.

Spread Widening

The difference between 10-year yields on Finnish government debt and similar-maturity German bunds widened the most in the euro region today, swelling five basis points to 39 basis points as of 1:39 p.m. in Helsinki.

A poll by Taloustutkimus released on Jan. 19 by broadcaster YLE showed Niinistoe had backing of 29 percent, beating the Green League’s Pekka Haavisto on 12 percent and the Center Party’s Paavo Vaeyrynen on 10 percent. Soini had the support of 6 percent, according to the poll, which had three percentage point margin of error. The election will go to a second round if no candidate gets more than 50 percent.

Niinistoe, who has been deputy chairman of the European Investment Bank as well as speaker of parliament, has an image as an “independent, wise banker,” Pernaa said.

Powers Curtailed

In Finland, the president is the head of state, while the prime minister runs the government from day-to-day. The president’s powers include steering foreign policy in cooperation with the government, appointing top-ranking civil servants such as the central bank governor and commanding the armed forces. Other powers will be further curtailed by a constitutional amendment that comes into force on March 1.

The Center Party’s Vaeyrynen has eroded Soini’s support by arguing for Finland to quit the euro. Niinistoe has said the only remedy to ending the crisis is reducing debt.

“Vaeyrynen has destroyed Soini’s political future,” Timo Tyrvaeinen, chief economist at Aktia Oyj, said by phone. “His anti-euro campaign has managed to disarm Soini completely.”

Soini’s success in the April parliamentary vote also mobilized voters of Haavisto, the Green League candidate who has risen in a backlash against conservatism and xenophobia, Tyrvaeinen said.

“People may be voting for Vaeyrynen and Haavisto to ensure Soini won’t make it to the second round,” he said.

‘Absolutely Not’

The rise of “The Finns” party in April reflected Finnish taxpayers’ disgruntlement over handing over cash to governments that overspent. Even so, two thirds of Finns support membership in the euro, according to a Dec. 27 poll in Helsingin Sanomat.

The anti-euro candidates also have the most voters refusing to back them. A quarter of voters polled said they would “absolutely not” vote for Soini, compared with 12 percent for Vaeyrynen, 10 percent for Haavisto and 4 percent for Niinistoe, according to a poll by broadcaster YLE on Jan. 5.

Not making it to the second round of voting would be “a major blow” to Soini, and would allow the government “freer hands” in designing policy without having to worry about the oppositions’ popularity, Tyrvaeinen said.

The winner will replace Halonen. The first woman head of state in the Nordic nation has served two consecutive terms and is barred by the constitution from seeking re-election. In 2006, she won 51.8 percent of votes to beat Niinistoe’s 48.2 percent to secure her second six-year term.

Niinistoe is married to his party’s spokeswoman Jenni Haukio, 34, a published poet. He has two sons from a previous marriage to Marja-Leena Alanko, who passed away in 1995.

‘Exceptionally Charismatic’

“Niinistoe is exceptionally charismatic and he’s had the pole position since 2006,” Pernaa said.

Haavisto helped mediate peace in Sudan and Darfur from 2005 until 2007 as a special representative appointed by the United Nations, following in the footsteps of 2008 Nobel Peace Laureate Martti Ahtisaari, also a former president of Finland. Haavisto is one of the founding members of the Green League and lives in a registered partnership with Antonio Flores from Ecuador.

Vaeyrynen, 65, is a former minister in eight governments and has worked as a lawmaker for 29 years.

Almost a third of voters are still undecided, even as 1.4 million votes were cast in advance ballots.

Polls open at 9 a.m. local time on Jan. 22 and close at 8 p.m. Vote counting is projected to be completed by 10 p.m., according to the Justice Ministry’s election website. A second round for the top two candidates will be held on Feb. 5 if no one gets more than half the votes.

“The election is important in determining the balance of power between parties,” Pernaa said. “Who places second, third and fourth is important feedback to the parties.”

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