Photo: HANS PAUL, Savonsanomat.

Election The Finnish Presidential Election: An office in transition

When the voters go to the polls for the second round of the Finnish presidential election on Sunday February 5, the ultimate winner will be destined for a significantly weakened presidential office. The role of the future president was of the main issues during the first round of electoral campaign and will be further debated during the upcoming week between the two finalists.

Published on on January 26, 2012

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Please also read the electoral commentary on the first round of the Finnish presidential elections.>>

When the voters go to the polls for the second round of the Finnish presidential election on Sunday February 5, the ultimate winner will be destined for a significantly weakened presidential office.  In the first round of the presidential elections last Sunday Sauli Niinistö, from the National Coalition party, with 37 per cent of the votes and Pekka Haavisto representing the greens with 18,8 per cent made it to the second round.  The role of the future president was of the main issues during the first round of electoral campaign and will be further debated during the upcoming week between the two finalists. Under the amended Constitution that takes effect in March this year, further powers have been stripped from the office of president. Beyond the issues of the EU, Finnish membership in NATO, intolerance towards ethnic, cultural, linguistic and sexual minorities and widening wealth gaps in Finnish society, the ongoing election debate has been characterized by disagreements about how the new presidential role should be shaped. To bowdlerize Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author, the Finnish presidential office invites contradictory expectations and a variety of takes on how the role as head of state should be interpreted.

A gradual parliamentarization of the Republic of Finland began when President Urho Kekkonen stepped down from a record-long and autocratic presidency, which lasted from 1956 to 1981. The dualism in Finnish government, where the president shared executive power with the cabinet and legislative power with the parliament, has gradually transitioned into a monistic form of government where the president is answerable to both the cabinet and the parliament. Like the French model, the Finnish model of semi-presidentialism gave the president significant foreign and domestic powers. The president appointed the person charged with forming a government (in practice, the prime minister), was empowered to dissolve the parliament and call a new election, and could make individual appointments to high-level state offices. The president also directed foreign and security policy and was the commander in chief of the armed forces. And there were no term limits. During President Kekkonen’s long-term presidency (1956-1981) these powers meant that the president exerted strong influence over domestic policy, including through foreign policy means.

Finland’s special relationship with the Soviet Union and the president’s responsibility for foreign and security policy offered Kekkonen, in his capacity as guarantor of trusting relations with its neighbor in the east, ample opportunities to use foreign policy as a cudgel in domestic policy disputes regarding, among else, the political credibility of political parties and individual candidates in Soviet eyes. President Kekkonen has also been accused of using Soviet threats to strengthen his own position. Among else, claims have been made that the Note Crisis of 1961, when the Soviet Union wanted to renegotiate the FCMA (Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance) treaty, was engineered by Kekkonen to outmaneuver the Social Democratic candidate Olavi Honka in the upcoming presidential election. The decades of the Kekkonen era were dark years from the democratic standpoint: Urho Kekkonen’s term in office was extended by emergency law from 1974 to 1978. Every political party except the Christian League and the Finnish Rural Party nominated Kekkonen as their candidate in the 1978 presidential election.

The first reform after Kekkonen resigned was to introduce direct election of the president, which seems somewhat contradictory considering that the president is given legitimacy by the people, independent of the parliament. Before the reform, the voters had elected electors to electoral colleges, which appointed the president – providing ample opportunity for strategic maneuvering and political horse-trading.

Direct election was fully applied for the first time in 1994. The new Constitution of 2000 took the first step away from semi-presidentialism and towards a more parliamentary presidency when the president was stripped of certain means of exerting power over domestic policy, including the power to appoint the person charged with forming a government (indirectly, the prime minister), dissolve parliament, and call a new election. The president’s foreign and security policy powers were retained, however, which led to disputes about who should represent Finland at meetings of the European Council and when the EU dealt with foreign and defense policy matters. This was a flashpoint issue in situations when the president and the prime minister represented different parties, and sometimes the prime minister and the president both participated in summit meetings. This so-called “two-plate” model (since two places had to be laid at the table for Finland at summit meetings) has come to an end with the constitutional amendment now coming into force, which stipulates that the minister will represent Finland in EU contexts. The responsibility for EU policy, which had partly been shared between the president and the prime minister, has now been transferred entirely to the prime minister’s remit.

The wording of the 2000 Constitution, which provides that foreign policy is directed by the president of the republic in cooperation with the cabinet, was not changed in the amendment, but its interpretation has shifted, since it stipulates that when the president and the prime minister disagree, the matter will be decided in accordance with the parliament’s position. To put it in a nutshell, the parliament and the cabinet are in theory free to ignore the president’s opinion, but in practice agreement would be sought for. In light of these constitutional changes, parliamentarism has been further strengthened in Finland. Even though the office of the president has been formally weakened, it is less clear whether and how this will be reflected in the actual exercise of power. Accordingly, how the candidates in this election understand the office of president is a matter worthy of consideration.

In somewhat simplified terms, two different interpretations can be discerned as to how the new presidential role should be practiced. First, there is the traditional view of the president as a strong leader whose primary responsibility is to direct foreign and security policy. This understanding is justified by the fact that since 1994 the president has been elected directly by the voters instead of an electoral college – and thus has legitimacy and a power base independent of the parliament. On the minus side, the president’s traditional responsibility for foreign and security policy has been significantly weakened.

The other view is that the president’s primary function is to shape opinion and act as a social figurehead in relation to fundamental values like democracy, tolerance, equality, and solidarity, including on the global level. The president stands above day-to-day politics, but exerts influence by broaching issues for political debate – that is, the presidency is of a symbolic nature. The term used in Finnish is “arvojohtaja,” which can be somewhat clumsily translated to English as “values leader.” This presidential model strongly resembles the German presidency, for example, where the president has a representative function and, depending on the holder, may intervene in day-to-day political debate.  The difference is that the German president is elected by the parliament, whereas a popular vote decides the Finnish president.  It has been suggested that the Finnish president should be elected by the parliament as well in order to finalise the process of parliamentarisation of the Finnish political system. The weakening of the president’s formal powers is consistent with this understanding of the president’s role. Even though the office of president has been gradually drained of power, Finnish voters still expect a strong president. As a rule, the president enjoys greater public trust than the parliament and cabinet, and voter turnout is higher in presidential elections than in parliamentary elections.

In the ongoing presidential election campaign, the first position has represented mainly by the gray eminences in the starting lineup. National Coalition Party candidate Sauli Niinistö, former minister of finance and speaker of the parliament, believes the president cannot be a symbolic relic, but instead has an independent power base, since he or she is elected directly by the people and can act accordingly. Niinistö, who made it to the second round of the presidential elections and in all likelihood will be the next president of Finland, does not deny that the president can be a “values leader,” but believes the president’s mandate is not to shape the worldviews of the Finnish people. Paavo Väyrynen, the Center Party candidate, thinks along the same lines. The president’s primary task is to direct foreign policy and in so far as EU policy encompasses foreign policy, EU policy is also within the president’s remit. The True Finns candidate for president, Timo Soini, believes the president’s powers should be preserved and that a strong president is needed to protect the Finnish people from the EU – and he blames the constraints of presidential power on the EU. And the people want a strong president: “The idea of a Finnish president as a master of ceremonies, mascot, or ribbon-cutter is anathema to the Finnish people,” he says.

Left Alliance party leader and presidential candidate Paavo Arhinmäki and Swedish People’s Party candidate Eva Biaudet, the ombudsman for minorities,  emerged in the first round as the strongest proponents of an opinion-shaping role for the president. The president’s task is to safeguard society’s fundamental values and human rights and lead the way to greater tolerance and solidarity, including when the president represents Finland on the international stage. Social Democratic presidential candidate Paavo Lipponen, former prime minister, presented himself as the “tough leader of soft values,” while Pekka Haavisto, running for the Green League and who will meet Niinistö in the second round, believes the president should be a globally respected shaper of opinion.

The parliamentarization of Finnish government has proven to be a protracted process that has met with opposition. Parliamentarization might have gone smoother and faster if Finland had chosen monarchism over republicanism, which nearly happened. When Finland issued its declaration of independence in December 1917 after the separation from Russia, this gave the existing parliamentary assembly an initial, principal-based support for a republican form of government. After the victory of the Whites in the Civil War of 1918, the idea of a monarchy became increasingly appealing in conservative and pro-German circles. Experience had proven, after all, that unbridled parliamentary rule was not a good thing in crisis situations. The monarchists also believed that Finland’s continued independence was dependent on good relations with Germany. On the 9th of October that year, Emperor William II’s brother-in-law Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse was elected King of Finland. His Finnish royal name was to be Yrjö – or George – the First. The defeat of Germany in the First World War put paid to the Finnish royal adventure and with the Constitution of 1919 the Republicans left the constitutional field of battle victorious. The European monarchies have all lost political power, while presidentialism has been more long-lived. And so in Finland as well.

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