Cablegate: Finland's March Election: Sdp Likely to Take

DE RUEHHE #0150/01 0641450
R 051450Z MAR 07




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) Summary: The latest polls give Finland's Social
Democratic Party (SDP) a chance to win the March 17
election, but the popularity of Center Party (CEN) PM
Matti Vanhanen seems to indicate that the SDP will more
likely come in a very close second. But in the follow-on
negotiations to form a new government, look for the SDP
to come away a winner. Entrenched in government for
nearly all of the past 60 years, the SDP boasts arguably
the most experienced bureaucrats, best political
negotiators, and a certain intangible pride of place in
"being in government" that pundits across the spectrum
acknowledge. Oddly, despite these advantages, the Social
Democrats face their own internal challenges, including
the retirement of their major party heavyweight, a
leadership often divided on key issues, and the
persistent unpopularity of party leader Eero Heinaluoma.
Given these challenges, we expect the SDP to come just
short of winning the election. But in Finland, second is
good enough for the SDP to ensure itself a dominant role
in the governing coalition, snap up key ministries and in
many ways take charge. End Summary.

--------------------------------------------- ---
2. (U) Two weeks before the Finnish Parliamentary
election, the polls are forecasting few surprises. The
Center Party (CEN) and the Social Democrats (SDP) -- the
main partners in the current government coalition -- are
tied for the lead, with each likely to grab about 24
percent of the vote. This puts them safely ahead of the
Conservative Party (CONS), which will likely score about
19 per cent. None of the parties will reveal a word
about the back-room negotiations which by now are well
underway regarding possible future governing coalitions,
but most pundits are anticipating the return of an CEN-
SDP led coalition, with some combination of smaller
parties invited along to ensure an ample parliamentary

3. (SBU) While the polls show a stastical dead heat,
observers across the spectrum give the ultimate edge to
CEN, thanks to the great popularity of PM Matti Vanhanen
(see reftel A). More than 60% of voters, regardless of
party affiliation, say they would like to see Vanhanen
return as PM. In 2003, without a "political superstar,"
CEN edged the SDP by a mere one parliamentary seat, and
with Vanhanen having emerged as something of a star, we
expect CEN to edge SDP again by a razor thin margin.

4. (SBU) Yet even with a second place finish, the SDP has
a way of coming out a winner. In 2003, the SDP had its
own superstar in the form of incumbent PM Paavo Lipponen
-- the man who, as PM from 1995 to 2003, guided Finland
into the EU; presided over the GOF's successful first EU
Presidency; strengthened trans-Atlantic relations; and
delivered on a range of domestic issues that, among other
things, helped pull Finland out of the devastating
recession it suffered following the collapse of the
Soviet Union. Lipponen and the party were shocked when
CEN won -- but they regained their footing immediately,
and by all accounts promptly went on to outfox CEN during
the coalition negotiations: CEN had earned the
Premiership through the ballot box, but SDP maneuvered
itself into almost all the other key posts, including
Speaker of Parliament and the Ministries of Education,
Justice, Interior, Foreign Affairs and Finance.

5. (SBU) CEN strategists insist to us that regardless of
whether they finish first or second, they do not intend
to get outmaneuvered by the SDP again. Nevertheless,
politicians and commentators from across the spectrum
marvel at the SDP's consistent ability to get their hands
on the controls of government regardless of whether they
sit atop the coalition or play second fiddle. Having
served in nearly every government coalition since
1950, the SDP boasts by far and away the broadest
grouping of experienced politicians with ministerial-
level experience, as well as the most bureaucratic and
technocratic government expertise at lower levels. The
party has rotated its activists in and out of ministerial
posts and other key positions for decades, skillfully
seasoning up-and-comers while also balancing their
nominations with very experienced subject matter experts.
The result has been both governments that can deliver for
voters, as well as a party machinery that knows in
advance what posts it needs in order to implement the key
parts of its agenda. In addition to these factors, our
CONS and CEN contacts admit that they always enter post-

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election negotiations that lead to forming the government
at a disadvantage. CONS suffers from least government
experience in the past half-century, while CEN arguably
boasts the best nation-wide electoral machinery but lacks
national-level technical experience and a certain
political "eye for the game." By contrast, as one CONS
candidate put it, the SDP simply "expects itself to be in
government," and thus enters the negotiations with an
intangible but real advantage.

6. (SBU) Yet in 2007, despite these historical and
bureaucratic advantages, the SDP faces tough internal
challenges that could hurt it at the polls. Most
importantly, the SDP is not only running without a
"political superstar"; it is led by something of an
"anti-superstar." With Speaker Lipponen retiring, the
SDP faces a double-whammy: first, it loses its single
largest vote winner, in a parliamentary system that
rewards the whole party for individual candidates'
successes; and second, Party Leader Eero Heinaluoma, the
party's de facto PM candidate, simply cannot shake a
persistent unpopularity with voters. Heinaluoma, who
comes from the powerful labor wing of the SDP, has proven
himself a tough debater, a master of his issues as
Finance Minister, and a respected campaign strategist.
However, polls asking "Who would make the best PM?"
consistently place him near the bottom of the eight-party
field -- as many as a whopping 50 percentage points
behind PM Vanhanen, and consistently behind the CONS
superstar, candidate Sauli Niinisto, who is not even his
party's PM candidate. Moreover, polls in Heinaluoma's
Helsinki district show him likely to capture just over --
or maybe just under -- the roughly 6000-vote threshold he
would need to get elected. This has opened up the
potentially very embarrassing possibility that SDP Leader
Heinaluoma might not even win a seat in Parliament -- in
a district where his predecessor Lipponen won more than
30,000 votes for himself and the party in 2003.

7. (SBU) In addition to Heinaluoma's lack of popularity,
the SPD is finding it difficult to deliver a unified
message on several issues. On foreign and security
policy (FSP), the party is badly divided between
Lipponen's disciples, who favor NATO membership and
stronger trans-Atlantic ties but fear that saying so will
cost them votes, and others like Tuomioja and President
Tarja Halonen who are clearly luke-warm on those issues.
However, the party has rather effectively papered over
these differences and, more importantly, succeeded in
colluding with rival parties to keep a real FSP
discussion off the agenda until after the election.

8. (U) Of greater concern to voters, in any case, a
varied basket of domestic issues, including elder care
and pensions; immigration; jobs and taxes; nuclear power;
education; Finland's place in the EU; and the role of
Swedish language in Finnish culture. And on many of
these SDP leaders have been all over the map. Just two
examples: (1) On immigration, many SDP candidates have
called for more liberal policies, in large part to bring
in workers to help finance the expensive Finnish welfare
state model -- a point of SDP pride -- in the face of a
shrinking workforce and aging population. However,
Heinaluoma has joined his long-time labor colleagues in
voicing skepticism about foreign workers who might
compete with Finns for jobs, while SDP Interior Minister
Kari Rajamaki has called for almost draconian measures to
cut down on the already-scant numbers of immigrants who
do come to Finland. (2) On nuclear power, Lipponen and
others have consistently supported increases in capacity
-- to include building a sixth reactor -- both to meet
Finland's energy needs and as a way to mitigate green
house gas emissions; yet almost simultaneously, President
Halonen (who, as President, is theoretically supposed to
rise above the fray of party politics but can never
resist an occasional plunge) has called for limiting
nuclear power.

Whither FM Tuomioja?
9. (SBU) Perhaps ironically, Foreign Minister Erkki
Tuomioja has emerged well ahead of Heinaluoma as the
SDP's potential heavy hitter, both in terms of delivering
a consistent message and as a magnet for votes. Tuomioja
is an ideological counterweight to Lipponen on security
policy and trans-Atlantic relations, to be sure.
However, as a politician, his star has risen dramatically
in recent months. Tuomioja's mastery of international

HELSINKI 00000150 003 OF 003

issues, his leadership during the Finnish EU Presidency,
and his reputation as an intellectual have earned him
extremely high domestic approval ratings. In recent
weeks alone, Finland's most widely read news magazine
rated Tuomioja the GOF's most effective minister; a
historical novel Tuomioja penned was chosen for Finland's
most prestigious literary prize; and polls have shown
that Tuomioja will quite likely be the SDP's number one
vote-getter. Foreign Ministry and SDP party sources
still tell us that Tuomioja is unlikely to return to the
MFA, as he announced late last year. However, if his
coattails carry the SDP in the way party strategists are
beginning to hope, he will be able to demand his post of
choice in any SDP coalition government.

--------------------------------------------- --
10. (SBU) Despite internal divisions and a lack of star
power, look for the SDP to come out well following the
March elections. Threats by CONS and CEN to form a "non-
socialist" coalition in the run-up to the election
(Reftel B) have largely faded, and at least at this point
the election appears to be an every-party-for-itself
affair. And while the exact breakdown of the final
results may be tough to call, the easy bet appears to be
the SDP back in government, either as the leader of the
coalition or as a secondary but in many ways dominant
partner. END COMMENT.

© Scoop Media

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