Conservatives' big win opens way to centre-right government
With very good reason, the moderate conservatives of the National Coalition Party can regard themselves as the big winners of the 2007 Finnish Parliamentary Elections. The opposition party managed to propel itself clearly past the Social Democrats in the final straight and into touch with the Centre Party, and in terms of seats won in Parliament, the NCP's 50 MPs fell only one short of the Centrists' showing.
It is difficult to imagine that in the present situation the National Coalition could be overlooked in the upcoming government formation talks. By everything that is reasonable, the status quo suggests that there should be a centre-right government, since the pairing of the NCP and the Centre Party enjoys a majority of the seats in Parliament.
The size of the historic victory won by the National Coalition Party came as quite a surprise, even if on the strength of the party's loss of six seats four years ago it was only to be expected they would appreciably improve their showing now.
Nevertheless, the opinion polls did not promise success on anything like this scale. It seems as though this election saw a repeat of the "Niinistö-effect" witnessed in last year's Presidential Election campaign.
This is supported by the colossal personal vote-haul won by Sauli Niinistö - in excess of 60,000 votes in Uusimaa.
Without underestimating in any way the improved performance of NCP chairman Jyrki Katainen in the closing stages of the race, it was apparently the Sauli phenomenon that propelled the party's supporters to the voting booths in such large numbers.
The Centre Party narrowly held on to its position as the largest party in terms of votes cast, but this time it was not their SDP government partners who were the main adversary, as had been expected, but the challenge came instead from the conservatives.
The Centrists' election result was not bad, even if the party did take a step or two backwards. Matti Vanhanen has been a popular Prime Minister across political demarcation lines, and he is an obvious treasure for the Centre Party, but at the same time the PM's portfolio weighed heavy on the party's support.
For the Social Democrats the result was a major setback, one for which the party had not been able to prepare itself. Four years ago the SDP lost out by just 6,000 votes on securing the position of largest party in the country, and similarly saw the PM's post pass to their coalition partners in the Centre Party.
For all that, the Social Democrats remained ahead in the opinion polls for almost the entire duration of the four-year electoral term. The SDP had also comfortably trumped the Centre Party in the 2004 municipal elections, but now they got a rude and unexpected shock. The party is threatened with being sidelined in the forthcoming government discussions.
The defeat will undoubtedly go above all on the personal slate of Paavo Lipponen's successor, party chairman Eero Heinäluoma. By comparison with that for Vanhanen, Heinäluoma's approval rating as the post-election "Prime Minister of choice" was worryingly low in the polls, even among the SDP faithful.
The failed TV advertising campaign produced by SAK, the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions, and the furore that surrounded it may also have had their own impact, although this is harder to prove.
The winners' enclosure also undoubtedly belongs to the True Finns, even if the party's national significance remains marginal with only five seats.
Right-wing populist parties such as this have fared considerably better at the ballot box in numerous EU countries of late.
By comparison with those parties, the True Finns under Timo Soini are a relatively moderate lot.
During the election campaign, Matti Vanhanen and Eero Heinäluoma implied that they would be willing to continue their collaboration in a so-called "red-earth" government coalition.
In opinion poll studies this has also been shown to be overwhelmingly the favourite choice with the Finnish public. Meanwhile, a centre-right grouping of the non-socialist parties was not seen as any kind of first choice - neither for Centre Party supporters nor among the majority of the electorate.
Now Vanhanen is faced with a new situation. The election result leaves no scope for brushing off the National Coalition Party's aspirations. A centre-right coalition is inevitably emerging as the first alternative.
As the minority partner and third party alongside the Centre and the NCP, the Swedish People's Party once again will probably be the most natural selection. The SDP's dismal showing on Sunday may cause the party to step voluntarily into opposition, before it is pushed there.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 19.3.2007
Previously in HS International Edition:
Incumbent Prime Minister Vanhanen anticipates four-party government (20.3.2007)
National Coalition Party win ringing election endorsement (19.3.2007)
Centre-right grouping offers only viable majority government in new Parliament (19.3.2007)
Poll: Centre-SDP government overwhelming favourite (16.3.2007)
SAK cancels controversial political television advertisements (5.3.2007)
Vanhanen increasingly popular as next Prime Minister (28.2.2007)