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Polls close in Finland; conservatives in the lead

By Karl Ritter

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, April 17 2011 12:00 p.m. MDT

Finnish Finance Minister and leader of National Coalition Party Jyrki Katainen casts his vote in Espoo, Finland on Sunday, April 17, 2011. Finns turned out in droves Sunday for a parliamentary vote marked by the meteoric rise of the nationalist True Finns party, which could tip the political scale to the right and even block Finnish approval of EU bailouts.

Jussi Nukari) FINLAND OUT NO SALES, AP Photo/LEHTIKUVA

HELSINKI — Polls closed in Finland's election Sunday with early results showing the conservatives in the lead and big gains for a nationalist party that wants to block bailouts for Portugal and other cash-strapped eurozone members.

With about one-third of votes counted, the conservative National Coalition Party — part of the current center-right government — was in first place with 20 percent, just ahead of the opposition Social Democrats.

The nationalist True Finns, who don't see why Finland should rescue Europe's debt-ridden economies, were in third place with almost 19 percent. The Social Democrats aren't against eurozone bailouts, but have called for changes to how they are funded.

Full official results were expected later Sunday.

"This is really good. This is a historic change," True Finns leader Timo Soini said.

Conservative leader Jyrki Katainen said it was too early to say which way the election would go.

The rise of the anti-immigration and euroskeptic True Finns has rattled nerves in the 17-member eurozone where bailout funds require unanimous approval.

But opinion polls before the vote suggested that pro-European parties would likely keep their majority in the 200-member Parliament.

"We are five-and-a-half million people," said Tuula Kuusinen, a True Finn candidate campaigning in Helsinki. "We have to stop giving money to every other country. We just can't afford it."

The party was expected to make strong gains from only 4 percent in the last election in 2007. Soini has said the True Finns deserve seats in the next government, though he realizes that his stance on European rescue funds is problematic for others parties.

Opinion polls indicated the center-right coalition led by Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi's Center Party and the conservatives would get enough votes to stay in power.

"The bigger parties have no reason to invite the True Finns into any coalition if they can make up the numbers without them," said Olavi Borg, professor emeritus in political sciences.

In a last-minute plea for voters to back parties that support bailouts, industrial organizations emphasized that the small, export-dependent economy would be threatened if the financial crisis in Europe spreads.

The full, front-page advertisement in Finland's leading daily, Helsingin Sanomat, said that exports provide jobs for up to 1 million people and guarantee the country's well-being.

"The bailouts are a bit complicated and problematic for voters but there is really no alternative," said Mikko Partanen, 65, a retired businessman.

"We must vote for the government parties so the coalition stays in power. The True Finns do not really pose a viable alternative," he said.

Keeping all options open, Kiviniemi, the prime minister, didn't rule out coalition talks with any of the other leaders.

Finland has pledged about €8 billion ($11.5 billion) in guarantees of a total €440 billion ($634 billion) in the eurozone's main bailout fund. But those likely will increase significantly as the currency union completes a promised boost of the fund's lending capacity.

If any single country pulls out the system will crash, leading to a worsening of the debt crisis at a time when the group is deciding whether bailouts will end with Portugal or will also be needed for larger economies like Spain or Italy.

Matti Huuhtanen and David MacDougall contributed to this report.

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