Finland Centre Party returned

The governing Centre Party has won Finland's parliamentary election by a razor-thin margin.


The main opposition Conservatives, however, made strong gains to claim a possible spot in the next ruling coalition.

"We did it," Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen told jubilant supporters after a 99 per cent vote count showed his Centre Party won 51 seats in the 200-member parliament, one more than the Conservatives.

"In an election it's always easy to win from opposition, but the most difficult thing is to renew one's victory," Mr Vanhanen said.

The Centre Party's main coalition partner, the left-leaning Social Democrats, dropped eight seats to 45, the official results showed.

The outcome could lead to the formation of a new centre-right government, and leave the Social Democrats in opposition for the first time since 1995.

"It will be very difficult to ignore the Conservatives," Conservative Party leader Jyrki Katainen said, referring to upcoming coalition talks.

However, a possible change in government was not expected to yield major changes in the country of 5.3 million that is one of Europe's most homogenous societies.

There is broad agreement among the major parties on most policies. These include maintaining Finland's neutrality and its welfare system financed by high taxes. The Conservatives are more open to NATO membership, but are not pushing the issue because of public opposition.

The Centre Party won 23.1 per cent of the vote while the Conservatives had 22.3 per cent and the Social Democrats 21.4, according to the provisional results. The final result will be confirmed by Wednesday.

The third partner in the current coalition, the small Swedish People's Party, won nine seats with 4.5 per cent of the votes.

Mr Vanhanen's party is expected to lead informal coalition talks before the new parliament convenes later this week. On April 17 politicians choose a prime minister – usually the leader of the biggest party. Two days later, President Tarja Halonen is expected to formally name the new Cabinet.

A recently released book by Mr Vanhanen's former girlfriend, exposing details about their love life, only boosted the prime minister's popularity, analysts said.

Finnish news agency STT reported today that he would request that police investigate whether the book violated privacy laws.

Finland, home to the world's largest mobile phone maker, Nokia Corp, has a booming economy and consistently ranks high in international surveys on competitiveness. Its notoriously high unemployment rate has dropped to the EU average under Mr Vanhanen's government – 7.6 per cent in January – but critics say he has failed to improve health care.

Pensions and care for the elderly were among the main election issues in a country where the proportion of people aged 65 or older has reached 15 per cent, from 7 per cent in the 1950s.

Almost 30 per cent of the 4.3-million electorate cast advance ballots for the 200-seat parliament. The vote falls on the 100th anniversary of Finland's first elections, which were the first worldwide to give women the right to run for office.

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