Finns, tired of austerity, head to polls

DISCONTENT::The opposition has promised to address the concern that spending was cut too harshly, including funding for the nation’s prized education system

AFP, HELSINKI

Mon, Apr 15, 2019 - Page 5

Finland yesterday voted in a general election in which the Social Democratic Party appeared set to topple the center-right government after four years of spending cuts, with the far-right predicted to make large gains.

The left-wing social democrats led Finland’s two main opinion polls with about 19 percent of the vote, having campaigned against the austerity policies of Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila of the Center Party and Finnish Minister of Finance Petteri Orpo, who is the leader of the conservative National Coalition Party.

However, the far-right Finns Party, led by Member of European Parliament Jussi Halla-aho, has seen a surge in support in the past few months during a campaign dominated by anti-immigration, urging people to “Vote for some borders.”

Polls showed the party ending up in second or third place, meaning it could play a significant role in the next government, which in Finland is typically a coalition of three or four parties.

As polling stations opened at 9am, Helsinki was typically quiet.

At the Normaalilyseo high school in the city center, only a trio of three young women were there as polling opened.

As required by Finnish law, election officials asked the first voter to confirm the ballot box was empty before it was locked and voting could begin.

A record 1.5 million Finns, more than one-third of the electorate, had already cast their ballots during a week of advance voting earlier this month.

The opposition Social Democratic Party has promised to address widespread public concern that public spending was cut too harshly in the past few years as the economy struggled to emerge from the recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis.

Cutbacks to the country’s prized education system drew criticism from lawmakers on all sides.

However, opinion polls suggested that the Social Democrats’ lead had narrowed in the past few weeks to as little as two points ahead of the National Coalition and the Finns Party, which were neck-and-neck in second place.

Some have blamed the shrinking lead on the inability of party leader Antti Rinne, a 56-year-old former trade union boss, to attract large numbers of new, younger voters.

The growing Finns Party ratings, on the other hand, appeared to be driven by new supporters who have not voted in the past.

The party has run a vocal campaign calling for asylum-based immigration to be reduced to almost zero and decrying the “climate hysteria” of other parties seeking action against global warming.

At a Finns Party rally on the eve of the vote in Myyrmaki, a disadvantaged suburb of the capital, Helsinki, a crowd of people, young and old, clamored around party leader Jussi Halla-aho, asking for autographs and congratulating him on the campaign.

Forecasts suggested no party was likely to draw more than 20 percent of the vote, meaning the result could be historically close.