Populist party splits in two to save Finnish coalition

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The populist, euroskeptic party in Finland's three-party government broke in two Tuesday, days after its election of a new leader threatened to spell the end of the coalition.

Some 20 lawmakers - nearly half of The Finns' members in Parliament - left the party and recreated themselves as the New Alternative group. They included Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who stepped down at the weekend after 20 years as party leader.

The election of Jussi Halla-aho to replace Soini at the head of Finland's second-largest party had threatened to sound the death knell for the coalition, with other party leaders saying they would not be able to work with Halla-aho, who has been convicted of hate speech for anti-Islamic and anti-Somali comments on his blog.

Prime Minister Juha Sipila said he would now include the New Alternative group in the coalition. The move enables Sipila's government to carry on, as it will command at least 106 seats in the 200-seat Parliament. The breakaway faction immediately promised to commit itself to the government program, including EU and immigration issues.

"This is naturally a very pleasant solution from my point of view," Sipila told reporters, adding he was prepared for other options, too. He didn't elaborate. "We're able now to end this (government) situation in less than one day."

In an unusually eventful day in mild-mannered Finnish politics, Sipila said he had already been on his way — on a business jet he himself piloted — to the summer residence of President Sauli Niinisto in southwestern Finland to tender his government's resignation, but returned quickly after hearing of developments with The Finns.

The Finns party was a rare example of a European populist party that had managed to hold Cabinet positions, but Halla-aho's election had threatened to put an end to that. On Monday, Sipila's Center Party and his government partner, Petteri Orpo of the National Coalition Party, said they had nothing in common with Halla-aho.

The updated coalition — which plans no ministerial changes — will face a confidence vote in Parliament in the coming days.