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Friday's papers: Trump hits Syria, report cards on last local election panel, border guard seeks expanded powers

Newspapers in Finland discuss the US missile strikes in Syria, party leader performance at the last panel discussion before the municipal elections, and the Border Guard's request for a change to the law.

Puolueiden puheenjohtajat tentissä 6. huhtikuuta.
The current leaders of the big eight face off for the final time. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Helsingin Sanomat starts off the Friday with a report from its reporter in the US, Laura Saarikoski, on President Donald Trump's latest move: an overnight missile strike against an air base in Syria. The attack was in response to a suspected nerve gas attack on a rebel-held town that killed dozens of civilians, including many children.

Speaking from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Trump branded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a "dictator" and called on "all civilised nations" to join the US in ending the bloodshed in Syria. Saarikoski says Trump's reaction is as could be expected: quick, improvised and above all, unpredictable.

Trump has done an about-face, she writes, as he had previously made it clear that he would be concentrating on "Making America Great". On the campaign trail, he promised to crush the most important terrorist enemy, the so-called Islamic State, but beyond that, he repeatedly said the US would not waste its time, money or strength in far-flung wars.

Just one week ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said that the United States would not require Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, a different tactic than the Obama administration had taken. Stability in the Middle East was considered more important than human rights, Saarikoski says. But then the chemical weapons attack hit the headlines.

Saarikoski has been reporting regularly for Finland's leading-circulation newspaper since the US election campaign hit full swing last year. She has made explaining the Trump phenomenon to the confused Finns her specialty, and even hoped to cash in on his historic ascent by writing a book. She says Trump's missile strike might be an attempt to remind the world of US power, or deflect attention away from his stumbling domestic politics, or both.

She says a loose cannon like Trump entering the Syrian scenario is scary, and she hopes that al-Assad sees it that way, too.

Last chance to make their case

Next in the papers, four political correspondents from the tabloid Ilta-Sanomat assess the performance of Finland's parliamentary political party chairs in their last televised panel discussion yesterday evening before the local elections on April 9.

Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, chair of the Centre Party, got a good grade (8 on a scale of 4-10), as he was seen to have successfully defended his government's austerity measures and showed no signs of campaign exhaustion. He mentioned that he had been winter swimming before the broadcast, and the correspondents each commented he was the calmest he's been in ages. They also gave him props for suggesting the voting age be dropped to 16.

Foreign Minister Timo Soini, leader of the Finns Party, participated in his swan song panel, as he will be stepping down as party head this summer after a colourful 20-year run at the helm. Each of the commentators noted that he clearly had fun during the debate, and several said they would miss his verbal virtuosity. Even so, he received an overall grade of 7 for his selective memory of Finns Party campaign promises of old.

Finance Minister Petteri Orpo, head of the centre-right National Coalition Party, received an average grade of 7.5 for his performance, with added points for reminding the Greens and the Left Alliance that they too had made cuts to education when they were in the previous coalition government. One IS rep said Orpo had left his nice-guy persona at home, and was borderline arrogant.

Opposition's song remains the same

Social Democratic Party chair and MP Antti Rinne was awarded a grade of 7.25 for his panel work. As the leader of the largest opposition party, Rinne was under the most pressure during the debate, the IS team said, but still showed few signs of tension as he focused on "his early childhood education mantra" and opposition to tax breaks for the rich.

Greens chair and MP Ville Niinistö, also stepping down soon as head of his party, received an average score that was closer to 8, even if he had nothing new to say, according to the assessors. He painted the NCP as the big bad penny-pincher and was more reserved than normal, the IS team said.

Left Alliance head and MP Li Andersson received the best average grade (8.12) of the evening for her command of numbers on education and senior care, and her willingness to take on Orpo. Her intensity meant everyone listened when she spoke, the IS reporters noted, but she still kept her cool.

Swedish People's Party chair Anna-Maja Henriksson received the worst mark (6) of the panel participants for her low energy and reluctance to engage, but Sari Essayah of the Christian Democrats fared much better with her defence of better senior care. One IS reporter said she "absolutely shined in some parts among the hyperactive, crabby men". 

Cracking down on drones and terrorism

And the last story in our Friday paper review is from the Lapin Kansa newspaper out of Lapland. It covers changes the Border Guard is requesting to its operating procedures. Finland's Border Guard is responsible for border surveillance, crime prevention and maritime safety, among other things. Charged with securing close to 4,000 kilometres of border, it employs some 2,700 people (and 213 dogs) at 16 border guard and 21 coast guard stations.

The Border Guard is now seeking expanded powers to intervene in times of exceptional security threats, according to Deputy Chief of the Border Guard, Major General Ilkka Laitinen. A request to amend the law has been justified by a rapidly changing security environment, and Laitinen is concerned about the guard's ability to respond to hybrid threats. The change would allow conscripts to play a larger role in border guard assistance, for example, in managing crowds, checking bags and identifying people.  

The Border Guard would also like broader power to intervene in the use of drones and model aircraft, if necessary, and operate in other areas beyond sea locations in work with the police to combat terrorism, for example.

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