Prime minister on defensive as recession hit Finland votes in election focused on jobs, debt

Unemployment reaches decade high

HELSINKI (AP) — Finland's last election focused on the rights and wrongs of bailing out Greece. This time, the Finns are wondering how to pull their own land out of the economic dumps.

Sunday's election comes against the backdrop of a three-year recession in a country that, typically, enjoys praise as one of the world's most competitive economies. Prime Minister Alexander Stubb is on the defensive as unemployment reaches a decade high of 10 per cent and derelict storefronts become an increasingly common sight.

Though many European countries are worse off than Finland - the jobless rate for the entire eurozone is 11.3 per cent — analysts say Finland's economy is likely to worsen unless political leaders construct a clear strategy for reform.

"Finland lacks vision, a political leadership with a view on how to take the country forward,'' said economist Sixten Korkman of Aalto University. "Right now, we can't really see a bright future ahead.''

Finland's change of fortune is linked to the decline of Nokia, the one-time cellphone powerhouse that was blown out of the smartphone race by Apple and Samsung and sold its ailing cellphone division to Microsoft last year.

The key forestry sector also faces lower demand for paper products as more publications go digital. A thriving start-up industry, known for such mobile gaming hits as Angry Birds and Clash of Clans, is too small to pull the economy out of the doldrums. An economy driven by exports is feeling the double chill of economic weakness elsewhere in the EU and in its sanctions-struck neighbour, Russia.

Stubb, whose conservative National Coalition Party is fighting for a tight second place in the polls, admits the country should have adopted structural reforms earlier. He's calling for sharp budget cutbacks to rein in rising debt, not traditionally a recipe for fueling growth.

"I think our economic base, our welfare system, is fairly stable. Now we need to get growth and jobs,'' he told Finnish broadcaster MTV News.

Polls indicate Finland's next prime minister following Sunday's vote is likely to be Juha Sipila, a self-effacing millionaire businessman who turned to politics only four years ago. His opposition Center Party traditionally represents land owners, farmers and foresters. On the campaign trail, Sipila has dismissed as unrealistic Stubb's plans to cut 6 billion euros ($6.5 billion) from budget deficits over the coming four years.

"That is an impossible figure,'' Sipila said during the final TV debate among party leaders Thursday night. "We believe 3 billion is enough.''

Sipila's coalition partner could be the Social Democrats, who are Stubb's current main coalition partner, or Stubb's own conservatives.

The wild card is the Finns Party, an anti-establishment group seeking support with a populist message decrying Greece's bailouts and increased immigration. Finns leader Timo Soini also wants Greece kicked out of the eurozone.

In the latest poll published Thursday, Sipila's Center Party leads with 24 per cent support. Stubb's conservatives had 16.9 per cent, the Finns 16.7 per cent, and the Social Democrats 15.1 per cent. The poll conducted from March 23 to April 15 had an error margin of 1.6 per cent.

Opponents have sought to undermine Soini's anti-Greek rhetoric by arguing that Finland itself might need an EU-driven bailout someday. But one of Finland's most prominent Greek residents says the two countries have little in common.

"Finns are good at getting out of bad situations. The corruption in Greece was rife at all levels of government, unlike here,'' said Evangelos Patouchas, a Greek restaurant owner who has lived in Finland for 35 years. He expressed confidence that Finns, bolstered by a political culture of consensus from left to right, "won't have to go to Brussels with cap in hand.''

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