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Schism in Finland's Communist Party turns voters away

Finland's once-powerful, Soviet-backed Communist Party has been relegated to the margin of this nation's politics. The party's decline shows how effectively Finland's center-left coalition governments have gained the confidence of its superpower neighbor, Finnish political analysts and diplomats say.

A key reason for the Communist Party's slip in popularity is a split within its membership over whether the party should cooperate in the broad coalition governments that have ruled Finland since World War II. This question has troubled the party since the early 1960s, and the Communists have switched back and forth between cooperation and opposition.

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An outright schism was all but formalized in late March, when a moderate wing took full control of the party's organizational structures. In addition to supporting cooperation with other political parties, the Communist Party's moderate president argues for a specifically Finnish-style socialism. He has warned the pro-Moscow faction to accept the new line -- or get out.

Party officials on both sides of the conflict concede that their long internal tussle has driven away many voters. Indeed, its share of the vote has dropped from 23 percent in 1958 to 13 percent last year.

Finland's Communists emerged from World War II as the country's largest party. But soon afterward, they were forced from the government amid accusations that they had been plotting a coup d''etat. Things have changed since then.

``The majority of the party has abandoned the idea of any real revolution,'' says Olli Kivinen, senior political editor of Finland's leading daily, Helsingin Sanomat. ``Anyway, how do you build a revolution with workers who already drive Saabs?''

Finland's postwar coalitions have presided over intensive industrialization, combining a vigorous capitalist system with strong social legislation. Since the '50s, the center-left has stolen most of the Communists' earlier constituency in the trade unions by maintaining high economic growth and living standards and keeping unemployment low.

Preoccupied with their internal struggles, the Communists have been unable to exploit the popular disaffection with consensus politics.

That role has been taken on by a small ``Greens'' movement, which benefits from what observers say is a substantial protest vote against the mainstream parties. The Greens have two seats in parliament and won as much as 15 percent of the vote in upper-class constituencies in local elections last October.

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