The election was decided yesterday in a second round of voting. The Social Democratic candidate, current president Tarja Halonen was re-elected with 51.8 per cent of the vote. Sauli Niinisto, candidate of the National Coalition Party, got 48.2 per cent. The inevitable happened - the incredibly popular president won. I'm very dissapointed, given that the last polls before the election showed that Niinisto had a chance to win. Oh well. Perhaps we will get a better president in 2012.
Today, Finns hit the polls as early voting begins in the presidential elections. The main election day is the 15th of January, and if there is a second round, it will be held on the 29th of January. The president of the Republic of Finland is elected for a term of six years, and the president can be re-elected once. The president's main responsibility is to lead Finnish foreign policy in co-operation with the government, and to act as an opinion leader. The new constitution, approved in 2000, greatly reduced the president's powers. However, the President has a central role in Finnish politics. The President has important powers in appointing officials, and remains the commander-in-chief of the Finnish armed forces.
Historically, the president has wielded considerable power in Finnish politics. The unusually extensive powers of the president were a residue of the aspirations to make Finland a kingdom rather than a republic. In 1918, shortly after independence, the idea of a King of Finland was rejected, for various reasons. To appease the supporters of monarchy, a strong presidency was adopted. The president had the power to appoint the prime minister and government, could dissolve the parliament, and led foreign policy.
Especially during the long presidency of Urho Kekkonen, the president dominated Finnish politics. Kekkonen had very close relations with the Kremlin, and used this to great effect in domestic politics - it was difficult to challenge Kekkonen, since this could be seen as endangering relations with the Soviet Union. Maintaining good relations with the Soviet Union was obviously important in the tense political climate of the Cold War, but arguably Kekkonen went too far. His most egregious stunt was to state that he would only continue as President - and therefore secure relations with the Soviet leadership - if his term were extended without elections, by means of a special law. Shamefully, the parliament concurred.
The presidency today
Today, such political games would be inconceivable. The specter of the Soviet Union no longer haunts Finland, and the prime minister is the most important political leader in Finland today. The new constitution of 2000 took the Finnish presidency closer to the ceremonial role that the head of state plays in countries such as Germany and Israel. However, the presidency is still the most prestigious position in Finnish politics, perhaps because it is the only one to which the incumbent is directly elected by the whole electorate. In presidential elections, the country forms one big electoral district.
The current president, Tarja Halonen, is the first female president in the history of Finland. In the 2000 elections, she beat the Center Party candidate Esko Aho, by a couple of percentage points. In 2000, the election was decided in the second round. This happens when no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the votes in the first round. This time, Mrs. Halonen, who is the candidate for the Social Democratic Party, is attempting to win in the first round. This is indeed possible, since she is extremely popular. Polls consistently rate her support as over 50 per cent, and she is especially favored by the female voters. Even if she doesn't win in the first round, it seems extremely probable that she will be re-elected.
There are three main candidates, supported by the three main parties. Tarja Halonen, the incumbent, is the candidate of the Social Democratic Party. The Center Party's candidate is the current prime minister, Matti Vanhanen, and the National Coalition Party has nominated Sauli Niinistö, former finance minister and current vice-president of the European Investment Bank. Mrs. Halonen's support is around 50 per cent, Mr. Vanhanen and Mr. Niinistö both poll around 20 per cent. The rest of the candidates have about one per cent support each. The candidates for the other parties are: Henrik Lax, member of the European Parliament, Swedish Peoples' Party; Timo Soini, member of parliament, True Finns; Heidi Hautala, member of parliament, Green Party; Bjarne Kallis, member of parliament, Christian Democrats. The only independent candidate is Professor Arto Lahti of the Helsinki School of Economics.
The current president, almost certain to be re-elected. Her campaign has included numerous events, television and newspaper advertising, and even rock concerts, but little in terms of political message. Her main theme is the upholding of the welfare state, which pretty much every single Finnish politician says they are doing, so this is hardly radical. But it is what the people want to hear. Of course, the president has little to do with the running of domestic policy. Halonen has had nothing new to say on foreign policy. She has reiterated her view that NATO membership is not necessary in the near future, but that the option should be kept open. She has strongly defended the president's role in foreign policy and as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, though she is the first Finnish president not to have done military service.
Matti Vanhanen became prime minister in 2003 after the resignation of Anneli Jäätteenmäki. He is, quite frankly, probably the most boring politician in Finland - and Finnish politicians are hardly radiant personalities in general. In his campaign, Vanhanen has stressed the importance of accommodating to international economic competition and globalization. Vanhanen has promised to promote Finnish financial interests abroad better, stressing the importance of foreign trade to such a small country. He also has stressed the importance of the president in leading foreign policy, and the president's role of commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Vanhanen's position on NATO membership is exactly the same as Halonen's. For me, at least, it has been difficult to distinguish between the two. The fact that they have to work together at the moment as president and prime minister has meant that no great controversies have arisen.
Sauli Niinistö was finance minister in both of Paavo Lipponen's governments in the late 1990s. He came to be known as a though administrator, who did not shy away from cutting welfare benefits. This earnt him some enemies, but he is widely respected for rescuing government finances from the serious economic depression of the early 1990s and for his ability to take tough decisions. His advertising campaign has shocked some, since his campaign ads have dubbed him the 'president of the working people'. He is the candidate of the National Coalition Party, a bourgeois conservative party traditionally associated with well-educated middle-class professionals rather than the working class. Niinistö's main theme has been that class differences are irrelevant today, since everyone is essentially a member of the working class. On foreign policy he is more pro-NATO than the other main candidates, though he stresses the defence aspects of the European Union rather than the Atlantic alliance. He has talked a lot about a 'European NATO', and the majority of voters think that under a president Niinistö, Finland would join the military alliance. This may work to his disadvantage in the elections, since the majority of people in Finland are against NATO membership. Though I think Niinistö has made some errors - he should have run for president in 2000 rather than now since back then he would have had a significant chance, he shouldn't have stressed his role as president of the working people since the president's main responsibility is foreign policy, and so forth, but my respect for the man and his experience is such that I voted for him today.
The Swedish Peoples' Party has traditionally one major election theme - the importance of the Swedish language in Finland. This has indeed been one of Lax's messages in the campaign, but it is one that resonates mostly with the five per cent or so of the population whose native language is Swedish. This is enough to gain some seats in parliament, but it is not enough to get anywhere in presidential elections. The other theme of Lax's campaign is NATO membership - Lax is the only one who openly supports it. As we have seen, most Finns are against NATO, so Lax's support is probably not going to be over one or two per cent.
Hautala is perhaps the most radical of the candidates. She is the only candidate who thinks the president's powers should be further reduced, and that the position of commander-in-chief of the armed forces should be given to the prime minister. Hautala wants to make the presidency almost purely ceremonial, stressing opinion leadership. Hautala has been most vocal in supporting human rights, and hence most critical of Russia.
The populist-nationalist candidate. Soini's campaign has mostly revolved around his anti-EU message. Soini asserts that EU membership has been a disappointment, and that it is not necessary for Finland. Soini has stressed the president's leadership role, arguing that the president's powers should be extended rather than further curtailed. Though many people have similar views - recent polls show significant scepticism toward the EU, and many want a strong presidency - Soini and his party (with two members of parliament), are seen as fringe figures, and it is unlikely that they will meet their target of eight per cent of votes.
The Christian Democratic candidate. Hasn't had that much publicity, though his sense of humor has been commended in the election debates. His main message is the basic one of Finnish politics - the upholding and strengthening of the welfare state. His own twist is to instill something of a Christian message to this. He is the most openly religious of the candidates, and has stressed the importance of Christian values in society. This is unlikely to win him a lot of support in a very secular country that despite an official state church likes to keep politics and religion separate.
The odd one out - the only independent candidate, and the only one who is not a professional politician. Lahti is a Professor at the Helsinki School of Economics. He is perhaps the most economically liberal of the candidates, stressing the importance of small businesses for the economy. He favors significant reductions in taxes, though of course this is an area the president cannot directly influence. Lahti is the only one in these elections to have taken up the age-old question of the return of Karelia from Russia. These themes are unlikely to bring his support to more than a couple of per cent.