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article imageFinnish PM seeks new coalition as populist party splits

By Rebecca Libermann (AFP)     Jun 13, 2017 in Politics

Finland's prime minister was to tender his coalition government's resignation on Tuesday after ousting an anti-immigration and eurosceptic party whose new leader has been convicted of hate speech.

In a surprise move, 20 of the Finns Party's 37 members of parliament announced they were breaking away to form a more moderate faction, called New Alternative, distancing themselves from Jussi Hallo-aho, who was named Finns leader on Saturday.

New Alternative "is ready to discuss joining the government," Tiina Elovaara, the group's deputy chairman, told reporters.

Prime Minister Juha Sipila, who has headed a coalition made up of his Centre Party, the conservative National Coalition and the Finns Party since May 2015, announced Monday that he wanted to end the tripartite government after the Finns elected Halla-aho as party leader, saying a collaboration was impossible.

Halla-aho, 46, replaced moderate Timo Soini, who has led the party for 20 years and is currently foreign minister.

Sipila was scheduled to meet President Sauli Niinisto at 1200 GMT on Tuesday to submit his government's resignation.

The president is expected to give Sipila a mandate to form a new coalition, enabling him to govern until the end of the legislature in 2019.

The five Finns Party members currently serving in the government have all joined New Alternative, including Soini, who co-founded the Finns party in 1995.

Sipila's Centre Party, the conservatives and New Alternative would have enough seats between them to form a majority in parliament.

The Swedish People's Party, representing the Swedish-speaking minority, and the Christian Democrats have said they would also be willing to hold talks aimed at joining the government, while the leftwing opposition -- the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left -- has called for new elections.

Sipila appears to be opposed to early elections.

"The goal is to have a viable government as soon as possible... in line with the current government program," the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper quoted him as saying.

The head of the conservative party, Finance Minister Petteri Orpo, said the future government must be founded on the same principles as the current one.

"We have had a turn of events in Finland. It would be a great pity if the political line would change," Orpo said, suggesting New Alternative would be a suitable coalition partner.

The new formation "offers better conditions for a majority government," he added.

The conservatives had swiftly rejected any cooperation with the Finns Party after Halla-aho's election on Saturday.

"Undeniable human dignity is the foundation of Western democracy," Orpo said on Monday.

- 'Elastic couldn't be stretched' -

The three coalition party leaders met on Monday, after which they made it clear that they would not be able to work together, especially on the subject of immigration.

"All decisions are based on values, but compromises are needed when there are three parties in the government. The elastic couldn't be stretched any further to accomodate Halla-aho," Sipila said late Monday in an appearance on public broadcaster YLE.

"The new leadership's view of justice, equality, human rights and so on are not the same as the Centre Party's."

Defence and European affairs were other problematic areas, he said.

For the Finns Party, participation in the three-party coalition has come at a heavy price.

Its support has almost halved from 17.7 percent in the May 2015 general election to 9.0 percent in a poll published Thursday by YLE.

A member of the European Parliament, Halla-aho, a father of five and a former lecturer in mediaeval languages, has said he wants to steer the party further to the right and push for tougher immigration policies.

His star has risen in recent years, in part because of his explicit writings against immigration and Islam.

In 2012, Finland's highest court upheld a conviction and fines against him for inciting ethnic hatred and blasphemy in a 2008 blog post where he criticised Islam and made offensive remarks about Somalis.

Earlier this year, he demanded that the European Commission penalise civic organisations which rescue migrants from drowning when their ships founder in the Mediterranean.

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