Finnish presidential elections 2012

There’s not that much analysis on today’s Finnish presidential elections in English, and even I have practically discontinued writing anything in this blog about Finland or Hungary. I’ll try my best in the near future to update it more. After two month’s absence from Finland studying populism based in California, I find the Finnish presidential elections turned into an interesting battle.

Election debates and advertisement brought out interesting aspects on the candidates, who had been hastily gathered to challenge – or at least appear to do so – the “uncrowned king” Sauli Niinistö of National Coalition. He has been waiting for six years, having made it to the second round in 2006, when he narrowly lost to Tarja Halonen social democrat, first female president of the country. In the meanwhile, the powers of the president has been diminished in favour of stronger parliamentarism. Many expected Niinistö to win 50 percent of the vote on the first round, which in the dark era of tightening budgets many also saw as a good thing. Not having to organise a second round would be a good place to save public finances.

On the election day Sunday 22nd January, the situation is slightly different. A second round is imminent, as following the polls, Niinistö’s support has shrunken from 49 to 29 in just two months. On Thursday, almost a third of the Finns could not yet name their candidates. (Yle poll)
For decades Finland has been run by three large parties, the formerly agrarian Centre Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the National Coalition, which have shared the power in coalition governments in this multi-party system. In the parliamentary elections in spring 2011, this holy trinity was put in question by the populist Finns Party. The elections were historical in terms of turnover in the parliament. Many politicians had been stained by corruption charges (indeed, in Finland!) due to electoral funding scandals.

On the candidates

Sauli Niinistö of the National Coalition has been in the minds of half of Finland as the next president, having failed in the previous second round. He is taken for granted, for better or worse: if only he wanted to run, the National Coalition would set him. At some point he seemed reluctant, perhaps because the responsibilities of a president – the powers – were shrunken. He also has a young wife and family. He has been campaigning alone, seemingly without putting in much effort – as he would not need to. This shows in the election debates where he has not said much new, as if he wanted to avoid jeopardizing his vote by saying something wrong. His persona and name act as the prime signifier for anything and the party, which has the highest rating and is the leading party of the six-party coalition, would itself bring in enough votes for making it to the second round. It seems from the slogans, “working for Finland”, that the party is trying to profile itself more and more as the party of the working middle-class. In the election advertisement Niinistö wears jeans, jacket and a checker pattern shirts. It is at odds with the dignified statement image Niinistö carries, or is projected to him by the electorate. He represents conservative values – even more than many fellow politicians in his party. Finally on the election day, he is wearing a suit in the advertisement and saying “working for you”. The concept of “work” that National Coalition seeks to monopolise, is a double-edged one: not everybody is passionate about working. There is some reluctance in people’s minds when they say, “I’m off to work now”, and for many it is just to cover expenses.

The party leader of the Finns Party (formerly True Finns, that never was their official name, now they would prefer to be called the Finns, but that would be slightly confusing), Timo Soini is the unquestioned leader of the party, an MEP, and also the candidate in these elections. One would have expected his popularity and his landslide to have helped him to gain a good standing at the polls, but Soini’s rating have not been promising (scoring 6 percent in the above mentioned poll, putting him still on the 4th place in the race). It seems to have been difficult for Soini to act not as an underdog but the acknowledged political prodigy. Yet, this is hardly would be the post most people in his party would like to see him holding: a president in Finland would have to give up their party ID. What would the (True) Finns Party be without Soini? Soini has managed to question the political elite, but is he now part of it himself?

Yet, one of the most important things for Soini in these elections has been to beat the SDP and smaller Left Alliance to boost their party’s importance on a new ground, the imminent trade union elections. According to the polls this is possible. The Social Democrats chose as their candidate a former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, who has prior work experience in the diplomatic field through to his PM posts (two full terms 1995–2003) and beyond, and is a house-hold name across generations – and even known in foreign press. He’s been associated with the Western and European attitude and taking Finland to the EU. But at the same time has been discredited for losing his party’s image in the coalition governments (although this could have happened anyway given the international crisis of social democracy), and in recovery from the recession, that hit Finland in after the collapse of the Soviet Union and profitable Eastern trade. Recently the left has regretted the way in which wealth tax was removed under Lipponen’s government. As a controversial figure, his support may show core support of the SDP loyals (though dissent is possible as the party secretary disliked by some has promised to step down if the elections do not fare well). Lipponen calls for courage, in his pro-European election message. The oldest and slower than the rest of the candidates, Lipponen has had his moments in the debates agree many commentators.

Considering Soini is an MEP and cannot step outside all discussions of the EU, the seemingly most anti-European candidate of the elections comes from the Centre party. Paavo Väyrynen is a veteran politician many have a love-hate-relationship with. Unsuccessful in becoming the leader of his party in 2010, he changed from his home voting district Lapland to the region surrounding Helsinki (Uusimaa), and failed to make it to the parliament where he had first been elected at 23 in 1970. He became the party leader at 33. He run as the party’s candidate in the presidential elections in 1988 and 1994. His campaign has been the most innovative, for the post that has little more ceremonial giving an impression of a royal candidate (that would question any King Sauli associations). He sells election mugs in coronation porcelain style, with him and his wife’s picture. Bringing in American style of campaigning Vuokko Väyrynen has been present in the campaigns, bringing an ethos of equality and balance, or life-long heterosexual marriage – and make a difference to other candidates whose partners have not been featured in this way. Luckily for Väyrynen, whose party is one of two opposition parties, a memo was leaked from the ministry of Public Administration and Local Government that the 336 Finnish local governments are to be reduced to roughly 70, which unsurprisingly has caused controversy. As the voice from the North, Väyrynen’s profile differs from the rest of the candidates and the regional vote for him can be significant. Having fallen off the bandwagon of his own party as well as from the MP’s post, though in the absence of other plausible candidates he was chosen to run in this impossible-seeming race, he also now appears to many as an anti-elite candidate. Commentators have argued that an obstacle to his success could be his self-righteous attitude and narcissism, which gives a comical flair to his public image, for better or worse. His tactic has been to appear slightly over-the-top. His advertisement in the newspapers leading to the election has been the best: him portrayed as a president, behind a wooden table, in front of a painting representing the Finnish countryside and with the flag of Finland and a mug of him and his wife (Saturday) and with him and his wife with “Happy six years”, a reference to new year as in finnish uusi is new and kuusi is six, signed by Vuokko and Paavo Väyrynen. Here you can see passion, and that politics can be fun.

The candidate of the Greens, Pekka Haavisto started gathering a civic association to back his candidacy well on time for the elections. A former minister for the Greens, lost MP’s seat in 2007 and regained it 2011 – perhaps also boosted by the popular campaign. The Finnish Green Party reaches circa 8 percent support and situates itself between the left and right on a socially liberal position (environment, human rights, equality, welfare), and Haavisto was a potential candidate for the red-green wide alliance. As all parties decided to set a candidate the campaign has turned to a liberal direction. It also contested previous Green positions – after all they had lead an anti-populist campaign in the 2011 elections. Haavisto made friends with Teuvo Hakkarainen, a MP for Soini’s party, notorious for his racist and homophobic remarks. This was to show how instead of standing against one should foster communication between people with different beliefs and backgrounds. It caused some controversy but also gained points for Haavisto. Similarly controversially, in a marginal media interview he had seemed to be related environmentalist action group that made videos of farm animals in poor conditions to neo-Nazis. Another blow for the campaign was Haavisto’s Equadorian born husband’s drunken driving, which finally perhaps made him look human. Haavisto’s potential presidency has raised debate on whether such an public office, which substantially, from the perspective of the electorate, involves organizing a yearly gathering of political and cultural elite and diplomats, the Independence Day Ball, and standing next to one’s spouse welcoming each guest to the event and starting the celebratory waltz with him or her. In 2011, the few invited gay couples made headlines, setting a new climate. Many would like to see the first female president to be followed by the first gay president. And from the perspective of political science, we should not ignore the sizable (closet) gay vote as my colleague Tuula Juvonen has emphasized. Haavisto’s prime qualities in the election race are not linked to him being gay, but being a calm but knowledgeable debater and a fresh face in the race, in comparison to Niinistö and Soini or Väyrynen. Tipped as the new Ahtisaari on the basis of his skills in peace-negotiation, Haavisto’s slogan has been “the negotiator of the state”, said simply in a grey suit.

Paavo Arhinmäki, the leader of the Left Alliance, has also done well in the debates. Born in 1976, he represents the youth in the campaign. He also represents his own party, which is in the race mainly to improve its profile, difficult to do in a rainbow coalition government. He sounds different and delivers a message critical of the current economic climate and often of the EU. He also raises issues such as environment, global justice, existing social inequality and welfare. He also has been eager debater. Interestingly, in the last debate organized by the national broadcasting company YLE, Arhinmäki contested the way in which he was set to sit next to Soini, Väyrynen and Sari Essayah of the Christian Democrats as the Euro-critics. Arhinmäki’s campaign has been a success for his party, even if it may not be visible in these elections. Arhinmäki has been consistent in his image making throughout his political career, to the extent that paradoxically the checkered shirts, jeans and jacket Niinistö is wearing make him look more like Arhinmäki than himself. Tellingly of the success for the campaign, Arhinmäki is the most suitable candidate in the elections for 23 percent of those who filled the election test of the national daily Helsingin Sanomat, with Soini second, Lipponen third and Haavisto third. Niinistö only made it to fifth but got most votes 30 percent when asked, prior to the results of best-suited candidates, “whom I am actually going to vote for”.

The two other candidates from small parties are only going to gain few percentage of the vote: Eva Biaudet from the Swedish National Party representing the six-percent-strong Swedish minority, and Sari Essayah, an MEP for the Christian Democratic Party. While both have their strengths in the campaign, I will be brief (sorry). It suffices to say that Biaudet’s vote will leak perhaps to Haavisto and Niinistö in terms of liberal values in social liberal and conservative strands, and I would not be surprised if some in the area surrounding Vaasa would not be voting for Väyrynen in contesting the government’s reforms of the hitherto independent local governments. She has been a feminist candidate, and but this time it was not the issue after 12 years of presidency of Tarja Halonen. Sari Essayah has also according to some commentators given a human face for her party, whose main public involvements have been in opposing same-sex couple’s marriage. Now, their candidate has had to talk about many other issues, and Essayah, a former champion in race walking, with her knowledge from the European Parliament as an MEP has had the durability and skill for that. Her vote would pour to any of the right-wing parties, seen that in terms of the second place it may be a tight race.

So, here we go for now. I hope to add some analysis later tonight, as the results come in.

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