Finland’s Presidential Elections

The 2012 presidential elections told a story about major changes taking place in the Finnish society.

Published in Diplomaatia 101/102, February 2012

The Finnish presidential elections of 2012 turned out to be surprisingly exciting, given the general stability of Finnish politics, but also given the results of the parliamentary elections in March last year that already shook that stability. They were exciting in spite of the fact that Sauli Niinistö who won the Sunday runoff by 62.4 to 37.6% was widely considered a likely winner long before the actual campaign started and the candidates were officially registered. Niinistö competed with outgoing President Halonen in the runoff six years ago and lost only by a small margin. Since then, there has been an unspoken consensus in Finland that Niinistö would become the next president. Still, the elections turned out to be interesting for the supporters of both candidates and for the observers.

Although Niinistö was seen as the ‘president-in-waiting’ long before the elections, his victory is historically extraordinary because it the first time that a Finnish president is elected from the moderate right-wing Kokoomus party since 1956 – that was the end of the presidential period of J. K. Paasikivi, a legendary man and the architect of the well-known cautious and pragmatic Finnish foreign policy line. Paasikivi was followed by the even more legendary and authoritarian President Urho Kekkonen who was elected from the rural Centre Party and stayed in power for 25 years. After him, since 1982, all Finnish presidents have been social democrats. The quiet, but growing support enjoyed by Niinistö has been favoured by a general shift in the political mood – Kokoomus has now been the most popular party in Finland for several years. It received most votes at the 2011 parliamentary elections, even though its relative popularity was somewhat reduced by the sudden rise of the Eurosceptic, conservative and nationalist True Finns party.

The elections were interesting not only because of the historical significance of Niinistö’s victory. The competition in the first round of the elections for the contender position in the second round was also important in many ways. (It was expected that there would be a second round – no candidate at Finnish presidential elections has yet received more than 50% of the vote necessary for winning the presidency in the first round.) The first round was above all a competition between personalities – the votes received by presidential candidates rarely reflect the general support level of their parties – but it was also indicative of the ongoing changes in the Finnish political landscape and social attitudes.

Pekka Haavisto, who eventually won the contender position, seemed likely to get that far already as the first election day approached, but given the initial setting his rapid rise to the position of a Messianic favourite for large groups of people, including the media and cultural elite, was not quite expected early on. The liberal and cosmopolitan candidate represents the Green Party that usually gets around 10% of the vote at national elections and got even less at the parliamentary elections last March. Haavisto was Minister of the Environment for a few years in the 1990s, but he has worked abroad as a UN and EU expert for the largest part of his political career, thus he was never very well known in Finland.

Still, he managed to beat several more prominent candidates, including the social democratic presidential hopeful Paavo Lipponen,  the Centre Party veteran and Haavisto’s closest competitor Paavo Väyrynen and the leader of the True Finns Timo Soini who had just multiplied the number of his party’s places in the parliament. All of them were initially considered more likely than Haavisto to get to challenge Niinistö in the runoff. The fact that a relatively unknown candidate with his rather modest campaign budget left them all behind can partly be explained by his professional skills and merits – during numerous televised election debates, Haavisto presented himself as an articulated speaker, a competent expert in foreign policy and a person who knows and understands the people’s wishes.

But Haavisto’s popularity was enhanced by Finland’s own ‘Obama moment’, the infatuation of the people with the very liberal candidate representing soft and humane values who, if elected, would have proven once again by virtue of his personal characteristics – he is a gay man living in a registered partnership – that the impossible is actually possible and that all people are indeed equal. In other words, he would have broken another ‘glass ceiling’ since the country had already had a female president for 12 years. The phenomenon has also been called ‘vastajytky’, a ‘counter smash’, as a response to Timo Soini’s way of describing the success of the True Finns at the parliamentary elections as ‘jytky’, a ‘smash’. The ‘Haavisto moment’ was the liberals’ counterblow to the populists. As Haavisto’s supporters include many social democrats, it remains to be seen whether some of them will permanently shift towards the Green Party.

The fact that veteran politicians Lipponen and Väyrynen dropped out of the competition in the first round also shows that a new page has been turned in Finnish politics. They have been influential in Finnish politics for decades, probably for too long in the eyes of many. They were made to realise their time in politics was over. Sauli Niinistö has also been a prominent politician for quite a while, but he entered politics a decade later than the other two – in the 1980s instead of the 1970s. In addition to being somewhat younger, he also has a more youthful worldview.

Lipponen’s very modest result in the first round – just 6.7 % of the vote – was nevertheless a surprise to many, not least to himself. As both Niinistö and Haavisto received much larger shares of the vote than their parties’ general support, former Prime Minister and Speaker of the Parliament Lipponen got much less than the 20% or more that the Social Democratic Party can usually count on. That, too, indicates a shift to a new era – Finland is no longer primarily a social democratic country – but it probably also reflects the reaction of the people to Lipponen’s recent role as a consultant to the Nord Stream pipeline company. The political elite and the media pretended that Lipponen’s lobby for Nord Stream did not influence his political career, but Arto Luukkanen, an academic at Helsinki University, has argued that it was indeed political suicide. And the voters have expressed their position pretty clearly.

In addition, the modest result of Timo Soini, the architect of the True Finnish ‘smash’, came as a surprise. He had also been seen as a possible contender in the final presidential race. It has been claimed that the True Finns realised that the election of their leader as president of the whole nation would have led to the collapse of their party. But one can also conclude that the success of the True Finns at the parliamentary elections last March expressed an abstract protest against the stagnated consensual system in Finland, rather than a sign that society had become more closed and conservative. Therefore, the outcome of the presidential elections was greeted as positive at least by urban and educated Finns – by electing the Niinistö-Haavisto duo as the finalists, the Finns had shown to the world that they were after all liberal, tolerant and open to Europe and the world.

It remains to be seen whether Sauli Niinistö as president will change Finnish politics significantly. The election debates did not profess great changes, especially in the foreign policy domain where the familiar pragmatic line is likely to prevail. Niinistö was regarded as the only candidate who could promote Finland’s accession to NATO. Considering the views on NATO of the majority of Finns, it is not surprising that the topic was avoided during the campaign. But the president of Finland has moral authority that gives him (or her) great influence on public opinion. We will see in the following years how President Niinistö is going to use that influence.

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