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Finnish choice

Published on February 1, 2012 by: in: Politics

This year’s presidential election will without any doubt be a crucial event on Finnish political arena, though as it seems its importance would be of a symbolic dimension. Indeed, the results will show Finns’ attitude to the security doctrine and their view on the role of European Union in their politics. They will also decide, whether they wish to transfer political power into the hands of one political party for the minimum of next three years.

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Characteristic feature of nearly all election campaigns is the fact, that apart from prompting not always substantive debates they excite emotions of enormous proportions.  Thus, referring to the particular set of ideals and values of a given community is one of the more popular strategies used by political candidates. While observing presidential campaign currently taking place in Finland we should not harbor any doubts that also in this country, some politicians attempt to play on the emotions of the crowds at the cost of substantive quality of their argumentation. This time, however, the results of the election that will take place on 22 January 2012 may turn out to be of great significance in terms of both Finland’s internal and external policies. Most of all, it concerns economic situation of the European community, and hence, of Finland as well. In the face of deepening economic crisis, this issue is one of the most vital aspects of ongoing debates. Also foreign and security policy, as well as recurring question of Finnish military future, are once again used as political tools. Usually, each of such discussions – while not officially – indirectly refers to the role of Russia in the contemporary Finnish international activity and direction in which Finnish relations with this country may evolve. Certainly, other issues such as ecology or increasing immigration that subsequently leads to intolerance are being raised as well; ultimately, however, those subjects seem to be of secondary importance.

First female President in Finland

Hitherto prevailing President of Finland, Social Democrat Tarja Halonen for two tenures, that is as long as 12 years, played the role of “national stabilizer”. However, perhaps it has nothing to do with her position as a leader and one of the most politically influential individuals in the country, despite the fact that Finnish President has a slightly bigger authority than the most European leaders. Her alias is associated rather with her role as a person, who has a strong social support, is an authority and simultaneously a voice of reason standing on guard of law and order in a public sphere. Halonen was also the first woman to become a President in Finland. Such development was a significant breakthrough, even in  liberal Finland, that bore testimony of changing mentality among the Finnish people. It seems that her presidency is met with much approval, which sets very high standards for her successors.

Who is running for presidency?

Candidates running in the upcoming elections are in the majority a well-known and recognized people of Finnish community. Every political party has selected its candidate, but in fact only five representatives of five main political parties are brought into consideration. The four of them can be certainly considered political veterans that have been present in Finnish public life for many years. The fifth candidate, however, is often described as a recent revelation on Finnish political scene. Therefore, views of Sauli Niinistö, Paavo Lipponen, Timo Soini, Pekka Haavisto and Paavo Väyrynen on the key issues of the contemporary Finnish politics are worth looking into, as well as it is crucial to answer the question of the potential consequences of electing one of them.

Sauli Niinistö is without any doubt one of the most popular Finnish politicians, well known for his contributions as the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Justice. The fact that in 2006 he was the only candidate to endanger Halonen’s position, as he lost the second ballot by only 3.6%, is certainly equally significant. Since then, he is considered an almost certain winner of the next, upcoming elections as every poll lends support to his advantage over other candidates from the very beginning.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/megapolis/1559483161/sizes/m/in/photostream/ As a representative of the National Coalition party, Niinistö has a center-right views. He defines himself as a democrat, although some of his opponents tend to describe him rather disdainfully as a federalist or neoliberal. Niinistö consistently avoids verbal skirmishes and tries to focus his speeches on specifics. It is safe to assume that his political opinions are consistent and barely changed in the last few years. As the majority of his opponents, Niinistö is an advocate of European idea, especially when it comes to military cooperation of the European Member States. In this respect, he officially supports as deep integration as it is possible. However, Niinistö seems to be a bit more careful where economics are concerned, especially taking into consideration contemporary economy of Europe. He promotes a belief that the solution and the way to achieve restabilization is going back to the basics: the previous monetary union, which is as important as a withdrawal from the policy of generous allocation of European funds to other Member States in case of potential economic crisis. All of those steps, when undertaken, would serve to rebuild the credibility of European Union as an international player. Sauli Niinistö is of the opinion that recently, European Union has been considerably weakened, which resulted in worsening economic situation of the whole Eurozone. He supports political solutions concerning economy which involve the rise in taxes,  for instance taxation of the richest inhabitants of Finland, and drastic cuts in budget.  It is worth mentioning that it is the Parliament that has the actual influence on Finland’s economy and only cooperation between the President and the Parliament may secure the Leader’s ability to have an effect on economy. The present Prime Minister of Finland, Jyrki Katainen also used to be a part of National Coalition so it seems that cooperation between Niinistö and his cabinet is possible.

Another pressing issue of this campaign, not unlike the previous ones, is the problem of the alliance with NATO. For quite some time this subject has served as a scarecrow of sorts, and accusing one’s opponents of supporting the accession became a very significant political weapon. Niinistö became a victim of such political game as well, mostly because he never truly ruled out the possibility of Finland applying for membership in NATO. He repeatedly emphasized that if the European Union would not be able to meet security needs of Finland, then the alliance with NATO would be an option worth considering. Without any doubt, Niinistö is respected and valued not only by the majority of fellow politicians. As it seems, those feelings are shared by the public as well, and are reflected in various polls from which he emerges as a central candidate from the very beginnings of the election race. His possible rise to power might prove influential on further changes in Finnish politics. Realized in accordance to the course taken by the government majority, would in turn surely constitute a true challenge for hitherto prevailing Finnish doctrine of partial non-alignment.

Timo Soini is undoubtedly a celebrity, who recently has caused an absolute confusion on the Finnish political scene. The disturbance in question was triggered by a rather spectacular voting results for his party, called True Finns and lately renamed The Finns Party, in the 2011 parliamentary election. During just one parliamentary tenure he managed to lead his party to the third rank in a general ranking and became the most popular politician in the country. It is easy to believe that in the stable Finland few people manage to achieve so much in so little time, however, slogans used by Soini are purely populist, which gives his bewildering political career another dimension. While listening to his speeches, it is easy to get the impression that Timo Soini distances himself from the majority of values that Scandinavia, as the region of freedom and progressiveness, was always associated with. Soini is a staunch Catholic, appealing to the values such as a traditional family model, God and the Finnishness. The result of this attitude is putting a strong emphasis on the abortion reduction, prohibition of homosexual marriages and their adoption of children, limitation of non-Christian influences, promotion of patriotism among the people of Finnish community as well as the elimination of obligatory Swedish language classes for school pupils and tightening of immigration policy.

When it comes to issues of economic nature, Timo Soini, being a talented speaker and strong Eurosceptic, makes every effort to blame the European Union for every single economic failure of the member states and accuses Brussels for, among other things, constraining its members and reproaches it for the lack of efficacy. On his blog, he highlights the weakness of the European Union, completing his argument with his statement from the interview for the British “The Guardian”, in which he compares the European Union to the Soviet Union that had fell in spite of the conviction of its invincibility. Without any doubt, Soini used a metaphor strongly influencing imagination of the Finns, especially when taking into consideration Finnish approach to the European Union, which was not too optimistic from the beginning. Also negative attitude of Soini toward allocation of European funds to the countries of economic decline, is the expression of his disapproval. He predicts that due to the EU aid policy, other European counties will start to collapse, which is going to bring about the domino effect and will lead to complete ruin of Europe. The only way to manage the crisis are drastic cuts of foreign debt and financial help that will include only mechanisms of the International Monetary Fund. Unfortunately, he does not provide any other specific solutions or ideas for the improvement while constant economic decline of both Finland and Eurozone takes place. What is more, there is no use in looking for any more specifics in his programme. Certainly, his attitude toward Finland’s membership in NATO is specific enough. Soini is opposed to this idea, although what needs to be said, he seems to think it is still more preferable and less harmful than the European Union. Consequences of electing Soini for President might be very serious and, as it seems, Finns are fully aware of that. Indeed, populists usually have nothing more to offer in terms of solving serious issues of given countries than strong words. In polls, Soini keeps second rank on the list, which quite probably will enable him to take part in second ballot.

Paavo Väyrynen, the true veteran of Finnish political scene, started his career in the 70s, when the controversial politician Urho Kekkonen was head of state. From that time on, he has been a member of Centre Party, and during his cadency he was responsible for many important functions. His views can be seen as quite controversial and the tactic which he adopted for the elections has a rather offensive character. Under his criticism comes almost everybody, from his rival candidates to the government and the whole coalition, in which there was no room for his party.

A part of public opinion considers Väyrynen a Eurosceptic, although in number of his speeches he underlined that the European Union is currently one of the most prominent political forces in the fields of international development, trade and the environment policy. Yet, he criticizes the idea of integrated Economic Union and Finland’s decision concerning joining the Monetary Union, pointing out other Scandinavian members of the European Union, who handle the crisis much better, still keep their national currencies. “The possibility of Finland leaving the Eurozone should be taken into consideration,” he said in an interview for YLE (Finnish Broadcasting Company), suggesting the return to Finnish markka at the same time. It seems then that Väyrynen sees the EU as an organization, which should not excessively interfere with the Finnish domestic policy and help in the execution of the universal values, because they are partly in accordance with doctrine of neutrality that is characteristic of Finnish policy from the times of Cold War. On that assumption he criticizes the military aspect of Union’s activity, claiming that it changes the Community into the European pillar of NATO.

The stand of the representative of Centre Party on the possible Finnish membership in the Alliance, is undoubtedly negative. He stresses, however, that such option would be worth taking into consideration but in couple of years. Military alliance would be contradictory to Finnish doctrine of military non-alignment policy and it would pose a threat to the well-being of neighborly relations between Finland and Russia. It would also result in the violation of the continuity of foreign policy strategy introduced by Urho Kekkonen and Juho Paasikivi. References to those two politicians, symbols of the past era, by some regarded as dictatorship, by others days of prime time, is a brave step, thanks to which Väyrynen may gain a lot. It happens more often that in the times of unstable economic situation, society harks back to the times of country’s prosperity and strong leadership. Still, such a procedure may cause a number of negative consequences, including accusations of populism. It seems though, that Väyrynen does not think about it, hoping that Finns have already forgotten about disputable matters concerning the ruling of the two aforementioned politicians. There are also a few controversies concerning Väyrynen himself. They touch upon the subjects of his opposition to Estonia gaining its independence in 1991 and the accusations of Georgia in 2008 for an attack on Russian peacekeeper soldiers. Additionally, his views on political sphere, such as strong stand towards immigrants, opposition to marriages and adoption by homosexual couples, prove that his opinions do not necessarily consent to the current political trends in Scandinavia. Consequently, he is in the third place in the majority of opinion polls, conducted among Finns, which give him merely 7-8% of votes.

Paavo Lipponen, the representative of Social Democrats and one of the most recognized Finnish politicians, comes in forth in most pre-electoral rankings. Taking into consideration the fact that not only was he the Prime Minister twice and was responsible for joining the European Union, but he is also one of the co-authors of Northern Dimension initiative, it is worth noticing that his position in the election race is rather weak. Only two years ago he strongly denied any speculations about his possible start in 2012 elections, but challenges stemming from the current international situation, and especially the economic crisis have changed his attitude, and so, in September 2011 he has been elected an official presidential candidate. In the approaching elections, Lipponen is fighting not only for his own candidature, but also for the continuation of Social Democrats presidency, whose representatives have consequently been elected heads of state since 1982.

The main international goals concerning his future presidency, that the former Prime Minster of Finland points out on his blog, are the improvement of relations with foreign partners and the promotion of ideas such as world peace, security and stability. Moreover, he supports the strong position of the European Union. As for the method for improving economic situation of the continent he recognizes strengthening the co-operation inside the community and introduction the greater financial discipline among its members. At the same time, Paavo Lipponen is the supporter of neutrality, especially on the military grounds. As a result, his position towards the Finnish membership in NATO has a negative echoing. In the sphere of internal politics, Lipponen emphasizes such notions as egalitarianism, fight against intolerance and the equality of law ensured on the basis of the idea of democracy. He supports an intensive development of regional policy and upholding the status of Finnish language, as the second, official language in Finland.

Assuming Paavo Lipponen succeeds, his presidency would not differ much from the current president’s Tarja Halonen. There is, however, one element which arises controversies – the Lipoponen’s cooperation with the Russian Gazprom. When the dependant on pro-Kremlin energy giant, Nord Stream company, has announced the project of creating Nord Stream, which would connect Russia and Germany across the Baltic Sea floor, among the citizens of the Baltic Sea Basin countries, including Finland, has boiled. Soon it turned out that the agreement to set pipeline under the Finnish territorial waters was essential for the success of investment. Since then, Russian pressure on Finnish government has intensified. In the face of Finnish indecisiveness, in 2008 Russians decided to hire an independent consultant, the former Finnish Prime Minister, Paavo Lipponen. His actions were supposed to convince Finnish government to support Russian project. Such decision has brought about a series of negative comments and Lipponen’s popularity has dramatically decreased. It appears that the consequences of that decision are showing even now. That is why opinion polls do not give him much chance of winning the forthcoming presidential elections.

Pekka Haavisto seems to be the most influential candidate from all the representatives of the small parties taking part in the Finnish elections. This Green League’s politician is one of the few most popular statesmen in Finland. In the recent polls he receives around 10 % of the national support, however it seems to be to a large extend unstable. He supports such values as democracy, equality, tolerance and he stresses the importance of the environmental issues, as a typical Green representative. In his long political career, he has been always involved in the struggle for the environmental protection, both as a state clerk, and as a member of international institutions. In terms of the foreign policy, he is a great supporter of the European Union and Finnish activity within it and also considers it as the only player that may save the eurozone and the whole union from the economic crisis. On the contrary, Haavisto opposes Finnish NATO’s membership, however he emphasizes that current cooperation with it, among others within the framework of the Partnership for Peace programme, is sufficient.

Undoubtedly, Pekka Haavisto is a popular politician in Finland, although it is worth mentioning that his popularity is a sign of a serious shift, which is taking place within the Finnish society. Haavisto is the first openly gay presidential candidate in the history of the presidential elections in Finland and he lives in the registered partnership. As it was mentioned before, the signs of the intolerance still happen in Finland, even between the crucial politicians, therefore his popularity seems to express that more and more Finnish citizens get liberal also in terms of private life of the candidates.
The rest of candidates, who take part in the campaign, are the representatives of smaller groups. Their opinion polls results are relatively small and they oscillate between 2-3% of the overall support. These are the representative of Swedish People’s Party of Finland, Eva Biaudet, Christian Democrat, Saria Essayah and the representative of Left Alliance, Paavo Arhinmäki.

The first ballot, which took place on 22nd of January gave Sauli Niinistö the expected first place, however he received only 37 % of votes with the 72,7 % turnout. This means that the second ballot is going to take place on February the 5th. The most unexpected fight for the second position, occurred between the Centre Party candidate, Paavo Väyrynen and Pekka Haavisto from the Green League. The final victory of Haavisto, who received 18,8 %, which was only 1,5 % more than Väyrynen, seems to be the biggest surprise of the elections.

The second turn therefore will be the struggle between the conservative and liberal values and fortunately, it will no longer be the referendum on the Finnish membership in eurozone, as suggests the biggest daily newspaper in Finland, ‘Helsingin Sanomat’. It appears that the EU’s issue will keep its crucial status in the public debate in Finland and that one will stay unchanged, the country will be still an important part of the European community.

If Sauli Niinistö won election, some changes, especially in the foreign policy sphere, would take place.  Tarja Halonen, one of the supporters of currently present non-alignment military policy, will soon hand over the reins on the group representative, who is sympathetic towards Finnish membership in NATO. It could all mean that the European Union is no longer able to ensure safety, which for decades has been one of the most important aspects of Finnish politics. It would prove that despite the changes of geopolitical conditions, which occurred over the past few decades, Finns remain faithful to their political pragmatism, which means the realization of the greater benefits rule. Considering that fact as well as the ongoing European crisis, it would seem that Finnish membership in NATO is more probable than ever. The same crisis, however, extort the greater involvement in strengthening the Eurozone, so one cannot account for the complete reorientation of politics.

This year presidential elections are, without doubt, one of the most important events on the Finnish political arena. It seems that they are of more symbolic dimension, though. These would be the results that would show what Finnish people think about safety doctrine and the role of the EU in their politics. They will also decide whether they want to hand over the reins on the hands of one political party for at least the next 3 years.

Translation: Magdalena Bożek, Piotr Gmitrowicz

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About Ewa Litke

Graduate of the Politics at the Department of the International and Political Relations at Łódź University. Studied at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu and in 2011 did internship at the European Parliament. She is interested in nearly all issues connected to Scandinavia, mainly political. Great fan of lounging around Finnish lakesides, secretly in love with Swedish kötbullar.

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