Photo from Sauli Niinistö's own homepage.

Election First round. The Finnish Presidential Elections

The first round of the Finnish presidential elections last Sunday both fulfilled expectations and offered surprising results. Sauli Niinistö, the candidate of the National Coalition party, was as expected given the greatest number of votes. The competition about the second ticket to the presidential final turned out to be a much more exciting and a close race than expected.

Published on on January 25, 2012

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The first round of the Finnish presidential elections last Sunday both fulfilled expectations and offered surprising results. Sauli Niinistö, the candidate of the National Coalition party, was as expected given the greatest number of votes.  He received 37 per cent of the votes, which some of his supporters considered a disappointment since the opinion polls less than a month ago promised around 50 percent. If this majority had materialized in the elections Niinistö would have been elected president without a second round that is required if no candidate gets more than half of the votes in the first round.

The competition about the second ticket to the presidential final turned out to be a much more exciting and a close race than expected. Moreover, the outcome was unforeseen as Pekka Haavisto, the candidate of the Green party, with 18.8 per cent of the votes surpassed two political nestors in Finnish politics, Paavo Väyrynen from the Centre party and Paavo Lipponen from the Social-democratic party. The political commentators immediately termed the final spurt of the former green party leader as a “Haavisto-effect” and interpreted it as a liberal counter-mobilization against the success of the nationalist and populist True Finns in the parliamentary elections in April 2011.

Whereas Paavo Väyrynen with 17.5 per cent of the votes was successful in mobilizing the supporters of the Centre party, the electoral outcome of Paavo Lipponen, a former prime minister and speaker of Parliament, was a great disappointment. He only gained a third of what his party received in the parliamentary elections of 2011, that is, 7.5 per cent. This also goes for the leader of the True Finns, Timo Soini, who was not successful in repeating the electoral success of his populist party in the parliamentary elections. With 9.4 per cent of the vote he polled a half of the party vote last spring. Even though it was said that Timo Soini seriously did not want to become president, the low turnout for the party is an indication of a weakened position within the party of the leader of the True Finns. A representative of the nationalist faction of the party commented that the party no longer is only Timo Soini, which is a further indication of the different groups within the party.  Every parliamentary party had nominated their own candidate for the presidential elections, which is perceived as needed in order to attain media visibility for the political parties and/or their leaders – in particular since local elections are forthcoming in the autumn. Paavo Arhinmäki, leader of the Left Alliance, received 5.5 per cent of the vote, whereas the two female candidates – Eva Biaudet from the Swedish People’s party and Sari Essayah from the Christian Alliance – got less than three per cent of the votes given. After twelve year with a women president, that is Tarja Halonen, the attractiveness of voting a woman was gone.

The electoral turnout is usually higher in presidential than in parliamentary elections. It was comparatively high this time as well – 72.8 per cent – which might surprise because the formal competences of the Finnish head of state have been further restricted in a constitutional revision last autumn. As a result of the ongoing parliamentarization of the Finnish political system, foreign and security policy is the remaining formal competence of the president taking office in March. Moreover, the president shares influence on foreign and security policy with the government and the Riksdag (parliament). Over the last 15 years, the office of president has been stripped of most powers, i.e., the semi-presidential presidency has been replaced with a more parliamentary head of state with predominantly representative and symbolic functions.

In spite of this weakening of the presidency the popular interest taken in the presidential elections is high and many voters still prefer and imagine a strong president, as has been the case historically, due to the special international and geopolitical situation of Finland close to the Soviet Union in the bipolar world –setting as well as short-lived and tumultuous governmental cabinets during the 1950s- mid -1980s. The Soviet Union has disintegrated and the governments nowadays survive entire electoral periods. However, during this electoral campaign the transformation of the presidency was repeatedly mentioned in the debates and most of the candidates were themselves prone to stress the modified presidency. This seems to have found increasing resonance among the voters.

Foreign politics and value-leadership

Two main themes dominated the campaign: foreign and security policy, on the one hand, and on the other what issues a president, standing above daily politics and primarily acting as a moulder of public opinion and agenda-setter, should raise. Agreement and unity over foreign and security policy has historically prevailed in Finnish politics. This proved to be the case even in this electoral campaign, with the exception of the EU. None of candidates advocated that Finland join the military alliance even though Finnish membership in the NATO has been on the agenda in public commissions and debates. However, some – among them both Sauli Niinistö and Pekka Haavisto – said that at the present moment Finland would not benefit from a NATO-membership, but that it is an option if circumstances should arise, and Haavisto added that a referendum would be needed in that case. Paavo Väyrynen, Timo Soini, and Paavo Arhinmäki were the fiercest opponents to the NATO. The reason for the reluctance of the candidates to open the Pandora’s box of military alliances is that a great majority of the population is negative to a Finnish NATO-membership. The close neighborhood (= the Nordic countries) and in particular Russia are prioritized issues in Finnish politics. No differences were manifested in the debates concerning Russia, as all the candidates stated they considered the relations with the eastern neighbor as good and well working. The greatest disagreements prevailed over EU – the euro and the financial support packages – even though the president with the constitutional revision that comes into force by the first of March no longer has any formal say over EU-policies. The debate on EU concerned the costs involved for Finland in supporting the European economies in crisis, rather the development of the EU as such. As mentioned, the president did previously share EU-issues with the government, but from March this is an exclusive competence of the cabinet. In particular Paavo Väyrynen and Timo Soini challenged this fact, and required that the opinion of the president must be considered when it comes to foreign and security policy within the Union – and also on other matters.

A second theme in the debates was the role of the president as an agenda-setter and a moulder of opinion, which in Finnish is termed arvojohtajaor value-leader. What issues are appropriate for a president to engage in? As a result of the electoral breakthrough of the True Finns in the parliamentary elections of 2011 with their anti-EU, anti-establishment, nationalist and xenophobic agenda in combination with criticism of the growing socio-economic differences, many candidates stated that they would engage in calling for greater social-economic equality, tolerance of minorities – ethnic, linguistic, and sexual – and the defense of an open Finnish society embedded in a global community. Some were, however, more trustworthy in this than others.  Sauli Niinistö and Paavo Lipponen were finance- and prime ministers respectively during the 1990s when cutbacks were made that underpinned growing socio-economic inequalities. The leader of the True Finns, Timo Soini, as well as Paavo Väyrynen, a former foreign minister, were keener on stressing the socio-economic and regional differences, whereas Pekka Haavisto, Paavo Lipponen, Paavo Arhinmäki and Eva Biaudet were the strongest spokesmen and woman for a tolerant and open-minded Finland. Timo Soini was challenged on the nationalist and anti-immigration stances within the True Finns and whether he agreed with them as he has been soft on parliamentarians who have made hate-like statements on various minorities or called for military intervention to calm demonstrations in Greece. Soini, as always counters that he – as a Catholic – considers all human life as equally valuable. Nevertheless, he was obviously stressed by the harsh debates on this point.

Personalized presidential elections

The person is of greater importance than party-ideology in presidential than in parliamentary elections. The restricted power competencies of the president and the fact that there is little disagreement over foreign and security politics has rendered the candidate’s person and image even more important. In these elections party ideology was of less importance than ever since the pattern that a candidate of the left (read: a social-democrat) meets a candidate of the right, which emerged after the end of the long-term reign of Urho Kekkonen (1956–1981) came to an end. The two candidates of the left were many hundred of thousand of votes away from coming to the second round of these presidential elections and 30 years of social democratic dominance at the presidency was terminated. Personal characteristics as experience, style and private life have increasingly been scrutinized in the media and also played out by the candidates themselves. The fact that Pekka Haavisto is gay and lives in a registered partnership with a hairdresser has upset many conservative voters. Some condemn homosexuality as such, whereas others think that it would be improper if the president together with his man welcomes the guest to the annual presidential reception on the Day of independence. Both Sauli Niinistö and Paavo Väyrynen have showed up with their wives on several occasions and thanked them in public for their support and loyalty as a means to manifest their representativeness as a couple for moving into the presidential residence. 

A conservative market-liberal versus a value-liberal internationalist

The second round in the presidential elections takes place on February 5. 40 per cent of the votes given last Sunday are now without candidates of their first choice.  The two presidential finalists and their campaign organizations are now engaged in targeting messages to these homeless voters. In previous elections the winning candidate of the first round has always been voted president. Sauli Niinistö has quite of an electoral advantage with his 37 per cent of the votes and Pekka Haavisto needs to catch up substantially in order to challenge Niinistö. Sauli Niinistö is backed up by a multitude of financial resources, whereas the campaign of Pekka Haavisto lacks money and relies on popular engagement, among others by using social media and personal campaigning. .

In the presidential finals, Sauli Niinstö, a value conservative market liberal former Minister of finance and speaker of the parliament, meets Pekka Haavisto, who is a value-liberal green internationalist that has been Minister of Environment and also has worked for the UN and other international organizations in Africa and the Middle East. Haavisto’s political socialization resides in green grass-root activism, whereas Niinistö is politically bred within the National Coalition party. They do both represent the urban southern Finland. The challenge for both candidates is to attract the EU-sceptic voters of the rural areas and the labour voters of the left. These are likely to stay at home on the election day unless the presidential finalists can formulate credible policies for these voters on the EU, social and regional equality. However, issues related to value-conservatism and value-liberalism will probably be of greater importance, since the two candidates are close to one another when it comes to foreign and security policy. Their personalities and personal styles are likely to make a difference as well. In the sauna at the classic public swimming pool at Yrjönkatu in central Helsinki, two ladies chatted the day after the elections on how the two contenders for the presidency left the televised election evening emission. “Niinistö took a limousine with a driver opening the door for him. Pekka walked in the falling snow along the Mannerheim street towards the centre of town taking some time to chat with international journalists and people he met”. On February 5 we will know whether the president of Finland prefers to take the car or rather walk home.

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