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Tuesday June 18th, 2019 2:54PM

Debate over climate change dominates Finnish vote

By The Associated Press
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HELSINKI (AP) — Voters in Finland are casting ballots in a parliamentary election Sunday after climate change dominated the campaign, even overshadowing topics like reforming the nation's generous welfare model.

Finland, a European Union member of 5.5 million people, has one-third of its territory above the Arctic Circle. Most political parties support government actions to curb global warming.

Pre-election policy debates over what and how much the Nordic country should do revealed disagreement among voters. A populist party that was expected to do well on Sunday railed against public sacrifices in the name of fighting climate change instead of making immigration its main campaign issue, as anti-migrant, euroskeptic counterparts elsewhere in Europe have done.

"For everybody, it's about the climate. It's kind of a climate election. Everybody's feeling some kind of a depression about it," voter Sofia Frantsi, 27, an interior architect from Helsinki, told The Associated Press on Sunday.

Over a third of those eligible to cast ballots voted in advance, choosing between 2,500 candidates from 19 political parties and movements for the Eduskunta legislature's 200 seats. Preliminary results were expected later Sunday night.

The centrist Center Party that was the senior partner in the outgoing government; the center-left Social Democratic Party the conservative, pro-business National Coalition Party, the populist Finns Party, and the Greens, who enjoy strong popularity in Helsinki, are the political parties seeking to lead or have a voice in Finland.

"It's clear a vast majority of Finns is hoping that the new parliament takes climate action," Emma Kari, a Greens lawmaker, told the AP as she campaigned on Saturday. "Politicians need to take responsibility."

Pre-election polls predicted that no single party was close to garnering enough votes to govern alone. If that proves true Sunday, the top vote-getter typically would try to form a new government with other parties as partners.

A Cabinet made up of ministers from different political parties is a long-time tradition in Finland.

The opposition Social Democratic Party, which has traditionally attracted working-class voters, topped a recent poll with 19% voter support.

Social Democratic Party leader Antti Rinne, a former finance minister and union leader, said after casting his ballot that all coalition options remained on the table if his party wins the most votes but that Finland's government needs to have "the same value base."

"I haven't closed out the (populist) Finns Party. I have said that if we are the first party, we're going to ask all parties the same questions" Rinne said. "I have said that my values differ very much from (Finns Party chairman) Jussi Halla-aho's values, and that's a big question for me."

Rinne favors raising taxes and increase spending to overhaul a costly Nordic social and health care system that is under strain as the nation's population rapidly ages.

The election "is about the Finnish future. The future is a big question for us, all this climate changing, education systems reforming ... all kind of things are very important" to Finland's people, he said.

The Social Democrats also back the pro-European Union policies of Finland, which uses the shared euro currency but is not a NATO member. Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) border with Russia.

The recent poll had the populist, euroskeptic Finns Party in second place with 16% support. Rural voters and other residents who find the climate change plans of other leading parties too daunting have been part of the populist party's momentum.

"We want a more moderate and sensible climate policy that does not chase industries away from Finland to countries like China," party chairman Halla-aho said Sunday at a Helsinki polling station.

Immigration remains a key policy issue, Halla-aho said.

Greenpeace Finland called Sunday's vote the "climate election," saying that "never before has climate and the limits of planet Earth been discussed with such seriousness in Finland."

The environmental group cited a recent nationwide poll in which 70% of respondents said tackling climate change and reducing carbon footprints should be key priorities of the new government.

Finland is boosting its production of nuclear energy by launching a new nuclear power plant next year. Finnish lawmakers last month voted to phase out burning coal as an energy source to end it by 2029.

Other proposals include increasing the number of electric vehicles on Finland's roads and reducing meat consumption through taxes or serving more vegetarian food as part of publicly funded meals in places like schools and the military.

"Everybody more or less agrees that the climate thing is very important. But then there are other things, like immigration ... and also the big reform of the social and health care," said Sari Hanhinen, a 49-year-old civil servant who voted in a Helsinki polling station.

Finland's outgoing center-right coalition government, led by Prime Minister Juha Sipila of the Center Party, pushed through an austerity package that helped Finland return to growth after a three-year recession but failed to pass a major social and health reform package.

"The negotiations will be very difficult, that's very clear, before they can create a government," said Jukka Vakkila, a 57-year-old doctor from Helsinki. "But I think that they will find some kind of consensus ... Finland could be a good example for other countries in this way."

___

Olli Kangas contributed.

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