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Euroskeptic gains in Finnish vote challenge Europe

By Matti Huuhtanen

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 18 2011 4:45 a.m. MDT

Election officials count postal votes at a counting centre in downtown Helsinki, Finland Sundauy April 17, 2011. Finns went to the polls to elect a new Parliament Sunday.

Pekka Sakki) FINLAND OUT NO SALES, AP Photo/LEHTIKUVA

HELSINKI — Huge election gains for a Finnish nationalist party opposed to eurozone bailouts posed a challenge Monday to Europe's plans to rescue Portugal and other debt-ridden economies.

Finland's pro-European conservative party won Sunday's election but its allies in the current coalition government lost support, meaning the Cabinet will have to resign.

Conservative leader Jyrki Katainen must now seek to form a new coalition either with the Social Democrats, who finished second in the vote, or the nationalist True Finns, who surged to third place.

Both those parties are skeptical of how Europe is handling the debt crisis that has led to rescue packages for Greece and Ireland, and another one being negotiated for Portugal.

The Social Democrats want to renegotiate Finland's commitments to rescue efforts for cash-strapped members, while the True Finns have said they don't think Finland should help bail out Europe's "squanderers" at all.

True Finns leader Timo Soini suggested that Finland should opt out of future bailout packages, decisions that require unanimity in the 17-member eurozone.

"Our money musn't be splashed out on mechanisms that don't work," Soini told Finnish YLE radio on Monday.

"We won't be dictating conditions for the rest of Europe but we will maintain the right for Finland to decide for itself on money matters," he said. "Finnish cows must be milked in Finland and we shouldn't send their milk for charity outside the borders of this country."

If Finland voted against a Portuguese bailout program, the European Financial Stability Facility would be paralyzed; if it merely abstains, the remaining eurozone countries could in theory go ahead with a bailout without Finnish contributions.

However, that means that the other countries would have to make up for the lost guarantees, a scenario that would likely run into opposition in other well-off states like Germany, the Netherlands or Austria, where sentiment against the bailouts also runs high.

Apart from the popular backlash, a rescue without Finland would severely undermine the eurozone's pledge to do everything to defend the common currency and could create panic on financial markets.

"This result will give Europe gray hairs," political analyst Olavi Borg said as the Finnish votes were counted late Sunday.

Katainen's conservative National Coalition Party won 20 percent of Sunday's vote, giving it 44 seats in the 200-member Parliament, two more than the Social Democrats. The True Finns soared from six to 39 seats. The results are preliminary and need to be confirmed by electoral committees by Wednesday.

Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi's Center Party lost 15 seats and said it go into opposition.

Finland's leading daily Helsingin Sanomat said government formation talks would be "exceptionally difficult."

"The government will most likely be formed on the frame of the National Coalition Party and the Social Democrats," the paper said in an editorial Monday, adding that opposing views on EU policy and bailouts could block cooperation between the conservatives and the True Finns.

However, Mikael Jungner, party secretary of the second-placed Social Democrats, said it would be difficult to ignore the True Finns in coalition talks because of their massive gains.

Katainen, the conservative leader, said he "can work with any party, as long as the election result and government program make it possible."

Asked if he can strike a deal with the True Finns on aid to Portugal, Katainen said: "When responsible people sit at the table and discuss matters with Finland's interests at heart then solutions always will be found."

The sharp rise of the True Finns represents a watershed moment in Finnish politics, which have traditionally been dominated by the Social Democrats, Center and National Coalition parties.

"This is a historic change," Soini said as the votes were counted. "We have caused a rumble."

The True Finns leader was also the biggest individual vote-winner in the election.

Before the election, industrial organizations emphasized that Finland's welfare would be threatened if the financial crisis in Europe spreads and hits Finnish exports that provide jobs for up to 1 million people.

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.

Gabriele Steinhauser in Brussels contributed to this report.

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