Anti-euro Finns take backseat in presidential poll

Fri Jan 6, 2012 12:03pm GMT

* Election on Jan. 22, with possible run-off

* Polls show conservative Niinisto in lead

* Eurosceptic leader Soini lagging despite party's surge

By Ritsuko Ando

HELSINKI, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Finnish voters look set to elect veteran conservative Sauli Niinisto as their next president as anti-euro sentiment takes a backseat to economic concerns.

The former finance minister from the National Coalition party, with around 40 percent support in polls, is clear favourite for the Jan. 22 election.

After the highly eurosceptic Finns Party emerged from obscurity to become the main opposition in April's general election - on a campaign opposing EU bailouts - some expected its leader Timo Soini to be a formidable presidential candidate.

But Soini is trailing with under 10 percent, according to latest media surveys, putting him behind at least one other presidential hopeful, Centre Party veteran Paavo Vayrynen.

If none of the eight candidates gets more than half the votes a run-off between the top two follows two weeks later.

Voters may be reassured by Niinisto's experience, analysts say, even though Finland's president has little executive power beyond military and diplomatic affairs.

"Finns are worried about the current state of Europe, the state of the euro, and you can feel that there is still a bit of anger about bailouts. But people are also worried about their future," said Juha Jokela, programme director for the Finnish Institute for International Affairs, an independent think-tank.

VULNERABLE ECONOMY

Finland is struggling with high youth unemployment and prospects of slow economic growth ahead as traditional industries like paper decline.

Even flagship tech company Nokia has been losing share to the likes of Apple and more nimble Asian rivals, forcing it to cut thousands of jobs.

While the government's balance sheet is healthier than most others in Europe, export dependency leaves Finland vulnerable to a downturn elsewhere.

The Bank of Finland last month cut its 2012 GDP growth forecast to 0.4 percent from 2.6 percent and warned of a recession if Europe's leaders fail to control the debt crisis.

"The public doesn't care that the president is not about economic policy," said Ville Pernaa at Turku Universiy's Centre for Parliamentary Studies. "The debate is Europe, the economy."

Niinisto, 63, was finance minister in 1996-2001 and is credited for ensuring the economy recovered and became more integrated with the rest of Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union devastated Finnish trade.

He was in office when Finland held the EU presidency in 1999, making him familiar with the workings of Brussels. Until last year, he was speaker of Finland's parliament.

Analysts say his lead showed voters haven't become too eurosceptic. Some said bailout fatigue may be giving way to serious concerns such as how a rapidly ageing population can maintain a welfare system without strong, export-led growth.

"If you look at support for the European Union, it's still rather high in Finland," said Jokela.

NIINISTO SEEN RESPECTABLE, TRAGIC

Even critics of EU policy appear wary of Soini's provocative style. A key role of Finland's presidency, currently held by former trade union lawyer Tarja Halonen, is diplomacy.

Recent racial insults by some members of the Finns Party have hurt Soini's reputation, and many voters in the capital said they don't want Soini - much of whose support comes from rural areas - to be the face of Finland.

"I'm not saying Soini is xenophobic, but... his supporters are, and I resent that," said 52-year-old Keijo Ruotsalainen, who teaches at university.

Alongside Soini and Vayrynen of the Centre Party, the Green Party's Pekka Haavisto - the first openly gay presidential candidate in Finland - and veteran Social Democrat Paavo Lipponen also have a shot at finishing second.

Opinion poll results indicate a run-off. While the second-placed candidate can surge in the next round, analysts say it would be tough for Soini to beat Niinisto.

Niinisto is unlikely to be hostile to the government led by his fellow party member Jyrki Katainen, although as president he would abandon party affiliation.

He also has a history of overcoming adversity - election losses, his first wife's death in a car crash, and surviving the 2004 tsunami in Thailand - that endear him to voters. (Additional reporting by Eero Vassinen; Edited by Richard Meares)

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