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New Finnish Leader Backs EU, NATO Membership

SOCIAL Democrat Martti Ahtisaari was elected Finland's 10th president in the second round of elections Sunday.

A senior civil servant in the Foreign Ministry with very little experience in domestic politics, Mr. Ahtisaari took advantage of voter disenchantment with traditional politicians and widespread dissatisfaction with government austerity measures.

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The former diplomat won 53.9 percent of the vote, defeating Defense Minister Elisabeth Rehn, who garnered 46.1 percent. Voter turnout across the country was high, about 82.3 percent.

During his campaign, Ahtisaari strongly supported Finland membership in the European Union (EU), and strongly criticized the rigorous economic policy of the center-right government of Prime Minister Esko Aho. Unemployment, a problem throughout Europe, has reached a record high 21.8 percent here.

One of Ahtisaari's few concrete promises was to give part of his salary to the unemployed. Immediately after his victory Ahtisaari announced that he would negotiate with Prime Minister Aho on ways the government can help reduce unemployment.

Despite the ideological differences of the president and the prime minister, however, Finland is unlikely to see conflict or major political changes, says the leading daily Helsingin Sanomat. ``The new president has to adjust to political realities and parliamentary practices,'' the newspaper editorialized.

Ahtisaari is a strong supporter of the traditional Nordic welfare state, but his influence on the level of public spending is limited, with the Aho government being in charge of economic policy. As president, Ahtisaari will be in charge of Finland's foreign policy, including negotiating Finland's future EU membership.

Unlike his predecessors, Ahtisaari does not rule out possibly joining NATO. Such membership would seem to be a departure from Finland's long policy of neutrality, but Ahtisaari says that all Europe should be included in both EU and NATO. He acknowledges, however, that Finland's EU membership negotiations might not be completed before the March 1 deadline set by the Union.

``Being neutral or not neutral is not the crucial question for Finland,'' Ahtisaari said during his campaign. ``Instead the most important thing for us is that nobody is left aside,'' particularly Russia and other former East bloc countries.

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