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Thursday's papers: Finland in chem weapons disposal, freeze on panda diplomacy and thumbs-up for child home care allowance

Print media in Finland are still feeling warm and fuzzy over pretty pictures of pandas at the centre of recent Chinese foreign policy. But Thursday's headlines also feature a grim chemical attack in Syria, frontrunners in Helsinki's mayoral election and positive attitudes to child home care allowance.

Pandat jotka mahdollisesti tulevat Suomeen asumaan.
Too cute to resist - one of the pandas that may take up an ambassadorial post in Finland. Image: Bi Feng Xia Panda Base / Ähtäri Zoo

Leading circulation daily Helsingin Sanomat seeks to insert Finland into a major international development involving the alleged use of chemical weapons in the convoluted ongoing conflict in Syria.

Against the backdrop of international outrage following an alleged chemical attack by the Syrian government that killed more than 50 adults and 20 children and otherwise affected hundreds, HS reminds readers that Finland has been doing its part to rid the world of such weapons.

The paper writes that back in the summer of 2014, just two days after the Finnish midsummer holiday, a freighter loaded with chemicals from Syria arrived in the southeast port town of Hamina.

The chemicals were the kind that could have been used to create chemical arms, but they were destroyed in a special facility in Riihimäki, owned by the Ekokem environmental and waste management company, now part of energy giant Fortum.

Finnish troops also participated in the international chemical disposal project by ensuring safe passage for the cargo through the Mediterranean Sea.

The last of the chemical weapons that were then said to have been stockpiled by the Syrian government were removed and destroyed in June 2014.

Western leaders have been lining up to condemn the Syrian government for Tuesday’s deadly attack; however long-time Syrian ally Russia blamed the incident on an air strike on a rebel arms cache that then released toxic gases.

Pensioner rains on panda parade

Cute cuddly animals are the undisputed darlings of the internet, almost always generating a deluge of likes, loves and shares among netizens of various online communities. A pair of giant pandas promised to Finland by China during this week’s visit by President Xi Jinping is already gathering more than their fair share of rave reviews in the print media.

However, one persistent retiree from the western Finland town of Ahtäri, where the pandas are likely to live, stands ready to short circuit China’s much talked about panda diplomacy. Meet 68 year-old Olli Sahimäki, who’s single-handedly frozen a funding guarantee for construction of a panda enclosure by taking the matter to the Vaasa Administrative Court.

"I’ve got nothing against pandas, even if Ahtäri were full of them. However the project can’t run on taxpayers’ money and guarantees," Sahimäki told tabloid Ilta-Sanomat.

Sahimäki told the paper that he’s worried about the tiny city’s finances – building the enclosure for the exotic animals will cost 8.2 million euros, money that the local zoo is raising through debt and its own guarantee. Established in 1973, the zoo has gone belly up several times, only to be resuscitated by the city, which owns 99 percent of the enterprise.

Sahimäki also pointed out that by contrast, the zoo’s revenues came in at 2.2 million euros last year, way below the level of the investment required to house the furry ambassadors. He’s also worried about the ongoing costs associated with the potential newcomers and said there’s no guarantee that they will be enough of a draw to fill the financial hole they'll create.

"Maintaining the pandas is also expensive. According to media reports renting the pandas is more than 800,000 euros per animal and on top of that they need round-the-clock care and guards," he declared. Sahimäki's court action means the project is on hold until the matter is resolved.

Broad support for child home care allowance

There may be no better time to test the temperature of the electorate on key issues than in the prelude to an election, and tabloid Iltalehti takes up the gauntlet with a poll on attitudes to Finland’s child home care allowance.

IL highlights a survey by the Alma Media news group, which finds that a majority of respondents – 51 percent – say they would maintain the current level of support for families with under three year-olds cared for at home, some 338.34 euros monthly.

According to the poll about a quarter of respondents supported increasing the allowance by either prolonging the period over which it is paid, or increasing the benefit. Just 14 percent had a critical view of the allowance, eight percent of that number said they would shorten the period of eligibility, while two percent called for it to be scrapped altogether.

The poll showed general support for the current system across party lines, IL reports, with a majority of supporters of all the major parties backing the measure as is. Child care and early childhood education have been among headline issues discussed by voters and candidates ahead of Sunday's local government election.

Vapaavuori a safe bet for mayor?

Back in the capital region, Helsingin Sanomat runs a poll suggesting that National Coalition Party mayoral candidate and ex-minister Jan Vapaavuori looks to be a shoo-in for the post.

HS reports that the man-in-the-street overwhelmingly favours Vapaavuori to lead the capital city, with 31 percent of Helsinki residents saying he’d get their vote. No one else is even close to challenging the NCP candidate’s lead – the second favourite is the Green Party’s Anni Sinnemäki with just 19 percent saying she’d be the best choice for mayor.

The paper also ran a parallel party poll showing that the NCP had the backing of 25.9 percent of voters, with the Greens close on its heels with 24.7 percent support. The Social Democratic Party and Left Alliance trailed the leaders with 16.9 and 9.8 percent respectively.

According to HS, the party poll is more relevant than the popular approval survey, since the mayor is elected by the new city council that will come into office in June, and not by a direct popular vote. That means that, according to an agreement among the parties, the party that emerges with the most votes in Sunday’s local election will most likely be the one to see its mayoral candidate installed in office.

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