Election A clear victory for Niinistö in the Finnish presidential elections

Sauli Niinistö, a former finance minister and speaker of the parliament from the conservative National Coalition party received 62,7 per cent of the votes, a result which came as no surprise. Sauli Niinistö has throughout the entire presidential campaign been clear on how the role of the new president is to be played. Since the president has a direct mandate from the people he is entitled to engage also in other policy domains than those prescribed in the Finnish constitution.

Published on balticworlds.com on February 8, 2012

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

”Elections are lovelier, the second time around. Just as wonderful with both feet on the ground” would somewhat paraphrased have been a suitable piece of music for Sauli Niinistö last Sunday evening. The song “The second time around”, performed among others by Frank Sinatra undoubtedly described the sentiments of the newly elected president, who with an overwhelming majority won the Finnish presidential elections on Sunday (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8J9BEmiY5w) In the 2006 presidential elections Niinistö lost the presidency with a small margin to the incumbent, Tarja Halonen, the first and so far only women president of Finland.

Sauli Niinistö, a former finance minister and speaker of the parliament from the conservative National Coalition party received 62,7 per cent of the votes, a result which came as no surprise. Pekka Haavisto, from the green party, who surprisingly won the second ticket to the second round was supported by 37,6 per cent of the voters. Some commentators claimed  that there were two winners of the elections, but only one president elected. During the two weeks between the first and second round of the presidential elections the two finalists travelled around the country to mobilize the “homeless” voters. The social media were used by the campaign staffs and activists to mobilize people to vote for their candidates. Moreover, the internet was also used for micro-finding for the campaign of Pekka Haavisto, which is a completely new feature in political campaigning in Finland. Sauli Niinistö’s campaign was financially supported by big finance and industry in addition to the party financial support, Haavisto had a considerably smaller campaign budget and in addition to the green party, predominantly organizations and people from the civil society and culture collected money by organizing concerts and events.

The electoral turnout of 68,8 per cent was lower than in the first round of the presidential elections. In the previous presidential elections in 2006 the voter turnout was 77,2 in the second round, that is, the electoral turnout dropped considerably. Moreover, it was lower than in the parliamentary elections of 2011, which is surprising against the background that voting has been higher in presidential than in parliamentary elections. The fact that the two candidates did not compete along any of the traditional conflict dimensions is part of the explanation. Firstly, for the first time since direct elections of the president were introduced (1994) the final round was not a competition between a candidate from the left and the right, but rather between a market-liberal and value-conservative and a liberal internationalist. Secondly, both candidates represent the urban southern Finland and voters of the rural northern and eastern parts abstained from voting as they probably conceived that none of the candidates in the final round could represent their regional concerns and EU-scepticism. Thirdly, as Finland has had a female president for twelve years gender was not an issue relevant for political mobilization this time.   

The person of the presidential candidates in terms of experience, representative ability and trustworthiness  has in comparison to party ideology and policy issues been of great importance when presidents are elected, but these presidential elections can without doubt be considered as the most personalized during the last 30 years. As the differences between the Sauli Niinistö and Pekka Haavisto were small in foreign and security policies  – they did not see Finnish membership in the NATO as an immediate concern, but an option if the situation should change, they cherish Nordic cooperation and good relations with Russia – their personalities was played out in their campaigns in addition to that the media took a great interest in their background, families, life-style, economy and even if and which pets they have. (Yes, the new president has a dog named Lennu).

Sauli Niinistö and Pekka Haavisto have had parallel political careers, but in different political parties and settings. Both became members of the Finnish  parliament for the first time in 1987 and had their first ministerial experiences in the broadly based rainbow coalition formed in 1995. Sauli Niinistö started as a Minister of Jurisprudence, but his reputation (and part of the popularity) comes from his period as a tough a budget-discplinising Minister of Finance. Pekka Haavisto, who back in 1995 was the first green minister of Europe and had transformed the green movement to a political party, assumed the Minister of Environment and Foreign Aid. He started a diplomatic career with conflict resolution and diplomacy in the Palestine, Sudan and other countries for the UN and the EU after he resigned from the government in 1999. Sauli Niinistö has been the Speaker of the Finnish parliament and has been the vice-president for the European Investment bank. Both candidates were experienced politicians, however, with different trajectories depending on their policy interests. Haavisto campaigned on his international merits and humanitarian experiences and targeted his campaign on issues as tolerance and solidarity in Finland and abroad. His unforeseen success is the result of a popular counter-mobilisation to the parliamentary breakthrough of the populist and nationalist party of the True Finns in the parliamentary elections last spring. The symphatisers expressed that Haavisto represented a truer Finnishness – Nordic openness, solidarity and internationalism – than the True Finns did. Sauli Niinistö had a firm background in traditional party politics and has been the chairman of the European conservative political parties. Sauli Niinistö is the first president of the National Coalitions party since Juho Kustaa Paasikivi (1946-1956) and the conservative party that was isolated from government until 1987 because it was not conceived of as trustworthy in the eyes of the Soviet Union, now controls both the Prime Minister and the President of Finland.  The political landscape of Finland has changed dramatically in the last years as the voters are more volatile and more prone to change political party from one election to the other.

However, the family-constellations of the two candidates played a major role in the elections. Pekka Haavisto is in a registered partnership with a male Ecuadorian hair-dresser and for the value-conservative voters it was unconceivable with a gay president who would welcome the guests to the annual indendence festivities and represent Finland internationally with a husband at his side. The fact that Sauli Niinistös wife is thirty years younger than himself raised some criticism as well. Nevertheless, both candidates engaged their partners in the election campaign and played on the issue of their representative abilities and against the background of the reduced competencies of the president and the increased personalization the question is whether the Finnish president rather is functional king and elected monarch? 

So, how come that Niinistö was elected with such a great margin and will that impact of how he as a president interprets the role of the new presidency? Sauli Niinistö explained his success by saying that his popularity resides in that he is so Finnish – a nice person, somewhat shy and not so talkative. Given his background as a market liberal person and a background as an advocate of cutting down welfare benefits, his value conservatism in combination with the fact that this was the second time he ran for president were crucial. Sauli Niinistö has throughout the entire presidential campaign been clear on how the role of the new president is to be played. Since the president has a direct mandate from the people he is entitled to engage also in other policy domains than those prescribed in the Finnish constitution. He has signalled that he will set up a working group on how to cope with the social exclusion of young people in Finland and that he will set up an informal evening meetings with politicians and others (modeled on the  weekly evening meeting of the cabinets). Sauli Niinistö will not restrict himself to the position of an opinion-moulder, on the contrary, he has at several occasions said that his mission is not to change the way people think. Given the strong support of Sauli Niinistö he is likely to use it as a motive for intervening in domestic politics. And, many voters still long for a strong president.  Foreign and security politics has traditionally been an issue of consensus in Finnish politics, but it is likely that changes are come compared to Tarja Halonen’s engagement in human rights and international solidarity. The developing new markets will be of greater concern, and Niinistö has said that his role is not to teach other states how to do things. The question is whether this applies to human rights and democratic diplomacy as well?  


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