Chairman of the Finnish Social Democratic Party Antti Rinne at the Party's election party in Helsinki, Finland on Sunday, April 14, 2019. (Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Lehtikuva via AP)

Social Democrats, populists top Finland vote ahead of EU's

April 14, 2019 - 4:25 pm

HELSINKI (AP) — Finland's Social Democratic Party retained a narrow lead to emerge as the top parliamentary election vote-getter Sunday, trailed closely by the populist Finns Party after most votes were counted.

The Social Democrats secured 40 seats in Finland's 200-member parliament based on a preliminary tally of more than 94% of ballots. The euroskeptic Finns won 39 after campaigning on the message that the Finnish government should overdo its efforts to combat climate change.

The election, held six weeks ahead of elections to the European Union's legislature, was being watched in Europe for indications of how a broad bloc of euroskeptic parties might do across the EU.

The Finns Party is part of an alliance of populist parties that aims to become the strongest faction in the European Parliament and to radically transform European Union policies on migration, security, family and environment.

In Finland, the nearly complete preliminary vote count gave the conservative National Coalition Party 37 seats and outgoing Prime Minister Juha Sipila's Center Party 31.

The Center Party lost more support than any other party compared to Finland's last election in 2015, apparently punished by voters for failing while in government to push through an ambitious health care and social care reform plan.

The election followed a campaign in which concerns about climate change even overshadowed the issue of how to reform the nation's generous welfare model.

Finland, a European Union member of 5.5 million people, has one-third of its territory above the Arctic Circle. Most political parties support government actions to curb global warming.

Pre-election policy debates over what and how much the Nordic country should do revealed disagreement among voters. The Finns Party railed against public sacrifices in the name of fighting climate change. It put less focus on immigration than anti-migrant, euroskeptic counterparts elsewhere in Europe have done in recent years.

"For everybody, it's about the climate. It's kind of a climate election. Everybody's feeling some kind of a depression about it," voter Sofia Frantsi, 27, an interior architect from Helsinki, told The Associated Press on Sunday.

Voters chose between 2,500 candidates from 19 political parties and movements for the Eduskunta legislature's 200 seats.

The party with the most votes typically tries to a new government with other parties as partners. A Cabinet made up of ministers from different political parties is a long-time tradition in Finland.

The opposition Social Democratic Party, which has traditionally attracted working-class voters, favors raising taxes and increasing spending to overhaul a costly Nordic social and health care system that is under strain with one of the most rapidly aging populations worldwide.

Social Democratic Party leader Antti Rinne, a former finance minister and union leader, said after casting his ballot that all coalition options remained on the table if his party wins the most votes but that Finland's government needs to have "the same value base."

The Social Democrats also back the pro-European Union policies of Finland, which uses the shared euro currency but is not a NATO member. Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) border with Russia.

Rural voters and other residents who feel that the climate change plans of other leading parties require too much sacrifice have been part of the momentum of the populist Finns Party.

"We want a more moderate and sensible climate policy that does not chase industries away from Finland to countries like China," party chairman Halla-aho said Sunday at a Helsinki polling station.

Immigration remains a key policy issue, Halla-aho said.

Greenpeace Finland called Sunday's vote the "climate election," saying that "never before has climate and the limits of planet Earth been discussed with such seriousness in Finland."

The environmental group cited a recent nationwide poll in which 70% of respondents said tackling climate change and reducing carbon footprints should be key priorities of the new government.

Finland is boosting its production of nuclear energy by launching a new nuclear power plant next year. Finnish lawmakers last month voted to phase out burning coal as an energy source to end it by 2029.

Other proposals include increasing the number of electric vehicles on Finland's roads and reducing meat consumption through taxes or serving more vegetarian food as part of publicly funded meals in places like schools and the military.

"Everybody more or less agrees that the climate thing is very important. But then there are other things, like immigration ... and also the big reform of the social and health care," said Sari Hanhinen, a 49-year-old civil servant who voted in a Helsinki polling station.

The outgoing center-right coalition government, led by Prime Minister Juha Sipila of the Center Party, pushed through an austerity package that helped Finland return to growth after a three-year recession but failed to pass a major social and health reform package.

"The negotiations will be very difficult, that's very clear, before they can create a government," said Jukka Vakkila, a 57-year-old doctor from Helsinki. "But I think that they will find some kind of consensus ... Finland could be a good example for other countries in this way."

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Olli Kangas contributed from Helsinki. Vanessa Gera contributed from Warsaw.

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