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Finn voters end ruling party's reign

HELSINKI, Finland — Voters on Sunday ended the Social Democrats' eight-year hold on power here, choosing the more conservative Center Party to lead a coalition government and paving the way for Anneli Jaatteenmaki to become the first woman to serve as Finland's prime minister.

The Center Party, carried to victory by voters in rural areas, won the election by two seats, a tiny margin, pushing the party of Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, the Social Democrats, into second place among the nine parties that won seats in parliament. Both parties picked up seats in an election that was characterized as lackluster, dispiriting and unlikely to dent Finland's deeply ingrained status quo.

Beaming in front of her supporters, Jaatteenmaki, 48, a former lawyer who has served as the opposition leader in parliament and is known for her toughness, shouted, "We did it," after the final election results were tallied. The election was too close to call for most of the night, with the two major parties flip-flopping the lead position at different points in the evening.

Lipponen, upbeat despite his loss, said he was satisfied that his party had picked up two parliamentary seats in the election, even though the Social Democrats came short of winning the most votes. The big loser in the election was the country's most conservative party, the National Coalition Party, which lost six seats.

"We're in a very serious international situation and the economic outlook is serious, even though our economy is strong," said Lipponen, 61. "That is why we need cooperation and a broad-based government."

If Jaatteenmaki is appointed prime minister, as is expected, Finland will become the first European Union country in which women serve both as prime minister and as president. Tarja Halonen was elected president in 2000.

Political analysts said the defeat of Lipponen and his Social Democratic Party was simply a call for a fresh face. Lipponen had served as prime minister for eight years, during which time he helped revitalize the wealthy Nordic country's economy and stabilize the labor market. Finland is home to Nokia, the telecommunications equipment giant.

But Jaatteenmaki seized on Finland's unemployment rate of 10 percent — the third highest in the European Union — to draw votes and promised to reduce taxes on employers to make it easier for them to hire lower-wage workers.

For the most part, though, there is little distinguishing the two major parties in terms of policy, analysts said. What was unusual about this election was the way in which the election was defined by the race for prime minister, instead of by party politics, they said.

"The Rainbow Coalition," which is Lipponen's coalition government, has been in power for two consecutive periods," said Aru Kantola, a political analyst. "People wanted a change."

But Sunday's elections, the first under a quirky, 3-year-old constitution giving the Finnish parliament and prime minister more power, were only the first step in shaping a new government. Since no single party ever comes close to winning 50 percent of the vote in Finland — nine parties were elected to the parliament on Sunday — several of the parties must form a coalition to govern.

That process will start March 25, when the new parliament begins the horse-trading that will ultimately shape the coalition. Putting together a coalition is expected to be a tricky task for the Center Party, which, as the opposition party for the past eight years, made few friends in parliament.

"The critical question for us now is how we will fare in the discussions over how to form the government," Jaatteenmaki said, cautiously. "But we are the winner of the elections."

All this mandated cooperation between parties makes for muted politics in Finland. Elections are staid dispassionate affairs here, a reflection of the country's pragmatic nature and its keenness for avoiding conflict, a trait some analysts say traces back to Finland's unique position as a Soviet Union neighbor. St. Petersburg is only five hours away by train.

Candidates seldom use negative campaigning lest their parties irritate the winners and lose a seat at the coalition table after the election. Finland's 4.2 million voters rely on newspapers for most of their information.

The one big surprise Sunday was the slight jump in voter turnout, which reached 70 percent. Turnout had steadily decreased over the past two decades and was expected to drop again, but last minute appeals by politicians appeared to have persuaded people to vote.

Voters grumbled, though, on their way to the polls, complaining that they were casting their ballots more out of civic duty than any sense of conviction. "You can't complain if you don't vote," said Hanna Kauppinen, a 24-year-old preschool teacher from Tampere.

Their vote, they said, would do little to change the workings of government in Finland, which is designed to maintain the status quo. "There are no major differences between the big parties," said Liisa Tyrvainen, who sipped coffee at Helsinki's Market Square. "The Social Democrats and the Center Party are very close to each other. So understandably there is frustration."