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Finland set to get first woman PM

Jaatteenmaki is congratulated by party secretary Eero Lankia.

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HELSINKI, Finland (Reuters) -- The opposition Center Party has won Finland's general election by a razor-thin margin, paving the way for the appointment of the first female prime minister in a country which already has a woman president.

The former agrarian Center Party won 24.7 percent of the vote or 55 seats in the 200-member parliament, seven more than it had in the outgoing assembly, preliminary official results, carried by national broadcaster YLE, showed.

"I think the Finnish people wanted an alternative. I feel very happy," Center Party leader Anneli Jaatteenmaki told Reuters at party headquarters.

Jaatteenmaki will now start tough talks to find enough political parties to be able to form a coalition government. She told reporters she was prepared to cooperate with the ruling Social Democratic Party (SDP).

Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen's SDP won 24.5 percent of the vote or 53 seats, two more than at the last election, while the Conservative Party was the biggest loser with 40 seats, down from 46 in the last parliament.

The election has focused on the personalities of the two leaders and the main themes have been how to revive a sluggish economy and reduce unemployment, a legacy of the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland's neighbor.

Jaatteenmaki successfully seized on the failure of the SDP-led coalition to achieve its target of halving unemployment, among the highest in the European Union.

In a militarily non-aligned nation whose 5.2 million people are mainly hostile to war in Iraq, she also scored points by arguing that Lipponen, 61, is too close to the tough U.S. position on Iraq.

"We should be pleased with the result we achieved. Thanks to voters who took our message of coming to vote," Lipponen, who has been in power since 1995 and is currently the EU's longest serving prime minister, said in a speech to supporters.

About 6,300 votes separated the two main parties.

Coalition possible

If Jaatteenmaki, a 48-year-old former minister and lawyer, is elected prime minister, Finland will become the first EU member state to have women as both prime minister and president, following Tarja Halonen's election as head of state in 2000.

The party with the most votes traditionally gets the first chance to form a government and have the premiership but horse-trading will be tough and may last for days. Parliament will meet on March 26.

Lauri Karvonen, a professor at Abo Akademi university, did not rule out a coalition government which included the SDP. One possibility could even be for the current four-party coalition government to freeze the Center Party out of power.

Finland, a wealthy euro-zone member, has been run by a so-called "rainbow" coalition of the SDP, the Conservative Party, the Left Alliance and the Swedish People's Party. The Green Party quit last year.

Sunny weather helped the turnout which has been in steady decline since the 1960s. On Sunday, it was estimated at 70 percent of the 4.2 million eligible Finns turned up to vote.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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