Mikko Majander: Mr President and the Seven Dwarfs

Mikko Majander | 30.01.2018

THE ELECTION NIGHT WAS OVER before it actually started. When the polling stations closed on Sunday 28 January at 8pm, the figures of advance voting filled the Finnish TV screens showing that the current president Sauli Niinistö had obtained almost two thirds of the votes. The rest of the vote count was a mere formality, and his second six-year term was secured with the final result of 62.7 percent.

This is the first time the Finnish president has been elected in the first round of the direct popular vote. Such superiority illustrates that in these turbulent times the Finns are seeking continuity in foreign and security policy, which is the dominant field of the president’s otherwise rather limited powers. The international ‘zeitgeist’ does not favour rocking the boat.

Niinistö is generally acknowledged for managing skillful diplomacy in the midst of rising geopolitical tensions that Russia’s actions have also created in the Baltic region after the Crimea takeover and the war in Eastern Ukraine. He has kept the dialogue open with the president Vladimir Putin but last year also conducted head-to-head talks with China’s Xi Jinping and Donald Trump of the USA.

Although a former chairman of the centre-right National Coalition party, Niinistö ran as an independent candidate, thus placing himself above daily political quarrels. In comparison to him the seven other candidates were dwarfs from the beginning – and remained that way to the end of the race.

The main challenger from the previous presidential election, Pekka Haavisto of the Greens, was also this time the runner-up but only with 12.4 percent of the votes. Even this result was way ahead of other progressive candidates, the social democrat Tuula Haatainen and Merja Kyllönen of the Left Alliance, who both obtained a shockingly poor 3 percent.

The two Eurosceptic populists, Laura Huhtasaari of the Finns party and the independent veteran Paavo Väyrynen, did not do much better with their 6.9 and 6.2 percent respectively. These low figures are a further proof that Finland remains a very committed member of the European Union with a will to sit at the core tables of integration.

However, the president is not in charge of Finland’s EU policies that according to the constitution belong to the prime minister and his government. Despite this, Niinistö is very keen on promoting the common security and defence policy. The logic goes that together with military cooperation, especially with neighbouring Sweden, this European dimension would strengthen Finland’s strategic position without irritating Russia by NATO’s enlargement in Northern Europe.

Even if stability was the main theme of the Finnish presidential election, it also provides another example to the more general European trend in which the old party structures are in turmoil. The social democrats dropped to yet another historical low, as did the other traditional people’s party, the Centre, whose candidate Matti Vanhanen scored only 4.1 percent of the vote. Not an encouraging result for the current prime minister’s party.

On the other hand, one should not rush into too extensive conclusions. The special feature of these Finnish presidential elections was Sauli Niinistö’s personal popularity that cannot be transformed into a single party backing. The upcoming parliamentary elections in the spring of 2019 will be a brand new ball game in which change and renewal are likely to have more appeal.


The article was published online by The Progressive Post, 30 Jan 2018.


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