IT millionaire Siplia hopes to take business savvy to PM's office

Juha Sipilä, the leader of the opposition Centre Party, attends a 2012 party meeting in Helsinki (AFP Photo/Sari Gustafsson)
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Helsinki (AFP) - Juha Sipila, widely expected to become Finland's next prime minister after Sunday's general election, is a softspoken 53-year-old IT entrepreneur who has risen rapidly through party ranks.

Sipila's liberal-agrarian Centre Party is leading in the polls, and he is expected to form an as-yet-undefined coalition to take over from the left-right government of Conservative Prime Minister Alexander Stubb.

The contrast between Stubb and Sipila is striking: while Stubb is outgoing and vivacious, happily sharing his running times on Twitter, Sipila is known for being taciturn and straightforward, choosing his words carefully.

In a public opinion poll published on Monday, 64 percent of voters said they wanted the Centre Party -- which has fostered 11 prime ministers and three presidents, including Urho Kekkonen from 1956 to 1982 -- to return to power.

The Centre has been in opposition since 2011, losing those elections after almost a decade in government.

Originally from Oulu in northwestern Finland, Sipila became politically active only recently, though he has been a member of the Centre Party since his youth.

Elected a member of parliament in 2011, he became Centre Party leader in 2012 when he was still virtually unknown to most Finns, benefitting from a deep renewal of the party.

Known for his modesty, large network and good people skills, "he's a leader that the urban supporters of the Centre Party and the agrarian supporters can both agree on," Helsinki University political science professor Juhana Aunesluoma told AFP.

- Clear vision, clear targets -

The IT millionaire, who has an impish grin and sports rectangular glasses, has campaigned heavily on his business know-how and thorough ways.

"When I take on a job, I do it to the fullest," he told his voters.

His track record suggests the same.

An engineer, he was the chief executive of Solitra, a manufacturer of components for GSM mobile networks in 1992.

Two years later he became the main owner, and in 1996 he sold the business to an American company for 12 million euros ($12.75 million), according to press reports.

He then moved on to the finance and bioenergy sectors.

Sipila wants to run Finland the way he ran his companies.

"I have a lot of experience on how to manage companies to make big changes. I think that the rule is the same, you have to have a clear vision and you have to have clear targets and you have to concentrate on a few things," he told public broadcaster YLE.

His plan appears simple: he wants to restore Finns' confidence as the country battles with high unemployment and a three-year economic slump.

The Centre Party has vowed to create 200,000 private sector jobs in 10 years, and has promised to reduce bureaucracy and taxes. Part of the plan includes freeing up cash by cutting hundreds of thousands of jobs in the public sector, mainly by not replacing those who retire.

On foreign policy, Sipila is opposed to Finland joining NATO, preferring instead a deepening of the country's defence collaboration with its non-NATO neighbour Sweden, as both countries watch Russia's growing aggression with a watchful eye.

Contrary to some members of his party, Sipila is not eurosceptic and sees the EU as "a level of governance," according to Aunesluoma.

"He is a supporter of the subsidiarity principle, he clearly doesn't want the EU to become a federal state," he added.

Married and the father of five children, Sipila is a practicing Lutheran and a member of the highly-conservative Laestadian branch where members often frown on dancing, television, birth control and alcohol consumption.

Sipila's youngest son, 22, died suddenly in mid-February following a routine surgery, prompting him to halt campaigning for two weeks.

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