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Cablegate: Municipal Elections Reflect National Party Fortunes

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DE RUEHHE #0516/01 3171603
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R 121603Z NOV 08
FM AMEMBASSY HELSINKI
TO SECSTATE WASHDC 4650

C O N F I D E N T I A L HELSINKI 000516

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/08/2018
TAGS: FI PGOV
SUBJECT: MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS REFLECT NATIONAL PARTY FORTUNES

Classified By: Ambassador Barbara Barrett for reasons 1.4(b) and (d)

1. (C) SUMMARY. On October 26 voters went to the polls in
Finland's 332 municipalities to vote for local council
elections. The biggest winners were the National Coalition
Party (NCP) and the True Finns. For the first time the NCP,
the center-right member of the governing coalition, was the
largest party in the municipal elections. The other main
Cabinet member, the Center Party of Prime Minister Vanhanen,
lost over 2 percentage points, making this the fourth
election in a row the party saw a drop in support. The
largest opposition party, the Social Democrats, having
already suffered a stinging defeat in 2004, also lost ground
overall and in the six largest cities. The results speak to
the larger fortunes of the parties, given national-level
issues discussed in the elections, and the campaigning of
party leaders. The disappointing results make it unlikely
Vanhanen will lead his party into the next parliamentary
elections. In the meantime, pressure within the Center party
could impact the Cabinet, particularly on increasingly
politicized issues like Afghanistan and NATO, though the
bureaucratic Vanhanen may resist party pressures and stress
Cabinet consensus. END SUMMARY.

Finns vote in quadrennial municipal elections
---------------------------------------------

2. (SBU) Braving terrible weather across Finland, on October
26 Finns went to the polls in 332 municipalities to vote for
local councils. The biggest winners were the National
Coalition Party (NCP) and the True Finns (TF). For the first
time the NCP, the center-right member of the governing
coalition, was the largest party in the municipal elections,
garnering 23.4 percent of the vote, up from 21.8 percent in
2004. The populist TF surged to 5.4 percent from 0.9
percent. The other main Cabinet member, the Center Party of
Prime Minister Vanhanen, lost over 2 percentage points (20.1
percent from 22.8 percent), making this the fourth election
in a row the party saw a drop in support. The largest
opposition party, the Social Democrats (SDP), having already
suffered a stinging defeat in 2004, also lost ground overall
and in the six largest cities. The Green Party (a smaller
member of the Cabinet) also did well (8.9 percent), becoming
the fourth largest party in Finland, passing the Left
Alliance for the first time ever.

Local elections, national party credibility
-------------------------------------------

3. (SBU) What drew so many Finns out (61.2 percent of
eligible voters, up from 58.6 percent in 2004) likely rests
more on the issues in the campaign than the party
personalities. The major issues in the campaign were
healthcare, care for the elderly, funding for education and
aid to the economically disadvantaged. Job losses in the
forestry sector, and the global financial crisis - including
the media coverage of the crisis' actual and potential impact
on Finland - may have provided additional national-level
issues to elections that might otherwise focus on public
transport and road maintenance. Elections fought on such
issues mean the results impact the parties at the national
level; responding to - or perhaps feeding - this perception,
national party leaders actively campaigned and debated even
when they themselves were not up for a council seat. (NOTE:
In Finland one can hold multiple positions, at the local and
national level. END NOTE.)

Shifting fortunes within the Cabinet
------------------------------------

4. (SBU) The NCP's strong results follow its good fortune
from 2007, when it passed the SDP and took a place in the
coalition government. While no party stood out in a poll
question regarding confidence in ability to handle municipal
issues, the NCP led with 38 percent. In meeting with
Polchief, NCP members attributed their results to better
national organization, a more youthful and dynamic appeal
through popular igures like FM Stubb and party chair and
FinanceMinister Jyrki Katainen.

5. (SBU) The Center paty lost support in rural areas, its
traditional ase. PM Vahanen and Center Party secretary
Jarmo Korhonen came in for some sharp criticism from within
the party after the elections. Critics complained that the
party had no overall strategy for the elections, but more
difficult for Vanhanen, many party members see him as a
better Prime Minister than party leader. Having steered the
party through multiple elections of diminishing support,
analysts and government officials expressed doubt to Polchief
about the likelihood of Vanhanen leading the party into the
next parliamentary elections. Vanhanen has publicly ruled
out resigning the party leadership in advance of the next
party congress in 2010.

6. (C) The impact of the local elections on the Cabinet is
uncertain. FM Stubb's senior advisor (and NCP member) Jori
Arvonen observed to Polchief that the Center party is split
into two wings, one more outward-looking and progressive and
the other more inward-looking and traditionalist. Within the
party Vanhanen is considerd to be from the former, and after
this election his support within the latter will likely thin.
This, Arvonen said, might create pressure for Vanhanen to
break from other coalition members on policy issues more
associated with other parties, e.g., Afghanistan, which is
largely associated with the NCP. However, another NCP
official pointed to the opinion held by many within the
Center Party that Vanhanen is a better PM than party chair;
the NCP member thought the bureaucratic Vanhanen would be
likely to give more weight to consensus within the Cabinet on
policy issues than in shoring up support within the Center
party through those same issues.

SDP support continues to drop
-----------------------------

7. (SBU) The opposition SDP also lost support from a
traditional stronghold, big cities, where it saw significant
losses in Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa. The SDP is an aging
party that has had difficulty in appealing to a younger
generation, a trend that may have contributed to reported SDP
difficulties in fielding candidates for the elections. On
the question of which party enjoys the most public confidence
in dealing with municipal issues, the SDP ranked highest
among middle aged to elderly voters. Jutta Urpilainen, the
party chair, put the best spin on the disappointing result,
noting that the party came out ahead of the Center Party
(given that some polls forecast more dire results). A second
place result may well help Urpilainen, who came into the job
only six months before the election.

Populists on the rise?
----------------------

8. (SBU) True Finns party leader, Timo Soini, was the biggest
vote-getter in the city of Espoo, and was the second biggest
vote-getter in all of Finland. The party likely drew votes
from both SDP and the Center Party, perhaps indicating a
widening of True Finn support beyond Soini's base (or at
least a thinning of SDP and Center support in those areas).
The media often describes the party as populist and
anti-immigrant. Likely responding to this characterization
and the succes of the Truee Finns, after the election, PM
Vanhanen reportedly said he hoped Finland would not see such
a political movement in Finland, noting that immigration is
part of Finland's future.

Comment
-------

9. (SBU) The municipal elections do not have a direct impact
on the Cabinet, which remains the same now as before the
elections. However, the change in fortunes of the parties
may have an impact on the functioning of the Cabinet. The
Center Party will likely not replace a party chair who is
also Prime Minister, but dissatisfaction with Vanhanen is
significant. Vanhanen seems unlikely to pursue policies in
order to shore up support in his party; however, pressures
could grow and eventually impact issues that are increasingly
politicized, like Afghanistan and NATO. END COMMENT.

BARRETT

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