The Finnish presidential elections: first round analysis

The results of the Finnish presidential elections indicate a vote in favour of Europe – in so far as the president has much say on national EU policy (i.e. very little). Sauli Niinistö of National Coalition was the uncontestable winner with 38 percent of the vote. Pekka Haavisto from the Greens made it to the second round by 1.3 percentage points with 18.8 percent of the vote. It is a historical moment in many ways. For the first time in 30 years Finland will not have a social democratic president (after Mauno Koivisto, Martti Ahtisaari and Tarja Halonen). Neither will the country have a Centrist-Agrarian president (Urho Kekkonen), or even a president supported by the social democrats as Kekkonen (president from 1956) was at some point. For the first time there will not be a traditional left-right confrontation in the second round of the elections.

Niinistö is a more conservative candidate with strong experience as a former party leader and minister, not to mention that after he narrowly lost in the second round of the 2006 to Tarja Halonen, his supporters have been waiting for these elections. Haavisto is has more experience in the foreign policy through peace negotiations. He is a liberal, openly-gay candidate concerned about the widening income gap in Finland. Unlike some in the Green party, he has not seen the populist (True) Finns party as a political enemy. In two weeks he would need support across the party lines.

The small Green Party’s candidate Pekka Haavisto left behind Paavo Väyrynen, a veteran politician of the Centre Party who made highly successful campaign beating both his own initial gallup ratings of few percentages and his party’s ratings discredited in the previous years (2003–2007) in government. Having lost both the vote for the party leadership and his MP’s position after moving south from Lapland, this presented a potential comeback for the former party leader even though he lost, once again, the possibility to run on the second round.

After having scored a landslide in the general elections in 2010 for his party and himself Timo Soini of the (True) Finns Party was left fourth with only 9.4 percent of the vote. His own analysis was that half of the supporters of his party wanted him as the president but the other half wanted to keep him as the party-leader active in politics, which the Finnish tradition would not allow for presidents. Part of this would explain the fall of support into a half. But it is also possible, that his party’s support had come in part from the Centre Party’s traditional base, and choice of a more similar, EU-critical and anti-power-elite candidate Väyrynen with his fun campaign made them return. Soini tripled his vote from the previous presidential elections in 2006, but considering the phenomenal raise of his party to the club of the large parties in the meanwhile, this is a weak result.

The clear loser of the elections was Paavo Lipponen’s Social Democrats who lost the post of a president they had been holding for decades. He got over fifth of the vote on the Swedish speaking cost around Vaasa, but averaged to 6.7 percent. There are a number of reasons why he did not get the vote needed for a respectable score for large party: Some explain this with the decreased trade union’s role in these elections. Previously they have expressed their support in may ways to the social democratic candidate. This year, after corruption claims that have mainly be directed to the right-wing parties but also drew attention to the trade union support for the SDP, after notoriously backfired video campaign in the 2006 elections, and after Soini’s (True) Finns Party has been seeking to move into the trade union politics. Part of the explanation may be the profile of Lipponen as a great man of the past, who next to the other candidates, in particular, Paavo Arhinmäki, appeared too old for the job or a representative of the previous era (that Väyrynen ought also have seemed, but he ran a vibrant royalist campaign). Generally, it can be argued although Lipponen had his own vision, his party is still in the search for identity. Many traditional supporters of the party did not go to the polls of voted for another candidate.

The Left Alliance fared better than it had done in the previous time when it had its own candidate in the elections. The party leader Paavo Arhinmäki got 5.5 percent of the vote. Unlike Lipponen for the SDP, as the active party chairman, he could offer a vision not only of his Finland, world economy and European politics but also of his party’s. This is crucial for the local elections in the autumn 2012.

Combined, the left-wing vote has shrunken, significantly, however. Even adding the two parties up with the Greens, it is less than a third of the total vote – less than their combined figure in the general elections in 2011 (the left-leaning, internationalist, social justice camp). The EU-critical Centre, Soini, and Christian Democrats got a similar share, also significantly less than in 2011 (the EU-critical social conservatives with regional support-base). The largest share, over a third went to the National Coalition (that could be characterized as a conservative-liberal camp, with pro-NATO, pro-nuclear, and pro-EU/euro sympathies). As expected many centrist and Soini-ist supporters have been expected to support Niinistö.

Niinistö and especially Haavisto need to add a regional dimension into their campaigns, after all there are Väyrynen’s votes in Northern Finland, in particular, to collect. None of the losing candidates have dedicated their vote to either Niinistö or Haavisto. The Greens and the civic movement around Haavisto have a near-impossible task to double their vote to match it with Niinistö’s and then gain as many extra votes. They would need to ignore or break the boundaries of the above mentioned camps (that for here mainly served analytical purposes). From the perspective of his campaign, these camps ought not to exist in appearance, so he would not be categorised in one. For Niinistö it the lead is so strong that it suffices to appear as more energetic than on the first round.

One thing that speaks for Haavisto is his upbeat campaign. Niinistö gained 39.6 percent of the votes cast before the actual voting day, and only 34.7 of those cast on the voting day, in contrast to Haavisto’s figures 14.6 and 22.3 percent. Many of the undecided voters cast their votes to Haavisto, and one can also ask whether all Niinistö’s advance votes are solid. There is also a potential trap in this thinking: many Niinistö’s supporters may have voted for Haavisto in attempt to keep Väyrynen or Soini out from the final race.

The advance voting starts already on Wednesday and Haavisto’s team should start their campaign without getting too tainted as a left-wing campaing yet collecting all left-leaning voters, and without appearing too self-righteous urban world-saving hipsters for the regions but serious about the increasing gaps in income and regional equality, if they want to have in the second round taking place on 5 January 2012. There is also still room for improvement also on the non-voters, as the turnout was 72.8 percent, whereas in 2006 it was 73.9, increasing on the second round to 77.2 percent.

(The results on YLE. My previous post accounts for the candidates and their campaigns.)

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