Niinistö in brief

64-year-old Niinistö is married to the head of communications of the National Coalition Party (NCP), Jenni Haukio, 34.

He has a Bachelor’s degree in law, and before becoming a Member of Parliament in 1987 he held various positions, including as rural police chief in his native Salo and as a court jurist.

He became a National Coalition MP in 1987.

He was Minister for Justice from 1995-1996, and Minister for Finance from 1996-2003, after which he took up the post of vice director of the European Investment Bank.

He returned as an MP following the 2007 general election, but instead of again becoming a minister as widely anticipated he became Speaker of the House.

This was Niinistö’s second bid for the presidency, having also been the NCP candidate in 2006, losing to Tarja Halonen in the second round.

He’s known for his support for Finnish entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and for his self-described “stubborn” tendency towards deviating from the NCP party line on a range of issues over the years.

Finland’s incoming president won’t enjoy a number of the powers his predecessors were granted, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the status quo will remain unchallenged.

On 5 February, Finland elected its twelfth president. His name is Sauli Niinistö. He’ll be taking office on 1 March and his tenure will last six years, which could be extended by another six if he decides to run again after his first term is up.

In contrast to a state such as Germany, where presidents are little more than relatively anonymous ceremonial heads of state (until they’re accused of corruption and forced to resign, that is), in Finland the presidency is a very respected institution and the president is one of the most visible politicians in the country. At the same time, things have changed dramatically over the last 30 years, and the presidency is no longer invested with the powers it once held. Furthermore, with legal amendments to the remit of the president coming into force upon Niinistö entering office, it’s been claimed that he’ll be the weakest president ever in the history of the republic.

With that in mind, what, if anything, can we expect to change with Niinistö at the country’s helm? How will he put his economic expertise to use as president? Under Niinistö, will Finland finally join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and will its foreign policy move in a different direction? What does the man stand for and what values shall he be promoting? SixDegrees set out to find the answers to these questions.

Comparing Niinistö and Halonen

The election of Niinistö, a politician from the conservative National Coalition Party (NCP) who, as has become the presidential tradition, has now given up his party membership card, marks the end of a 30-year Social Democratic dominance of the presidency. Niinistö is also the first president in 50 years to emanate from the NCP. As such, this month’s election can definitely be considered historic and maybe even symbolic. But will Niinistö’s Finland be much different from President Tarja Halonen’s?

“I don’t believe any drastic change will happen. The elections of Mauno Koivisto, Martti Ahtisaari and Tarja Halonen were based on their representing not just Social Democracy but also something else,” says Professor Pauli Kettunen of the Department of Science Social History at the University of Helsinki.

“Halonen was able to complete her Social Democratic identity with wider shared objectives such as gender equality and cultural tolerance [while] one may expect that the messages Niinistö will send as ‘value leader’ – a very problematic idea that has become popular in public debates – will differ from those we’ve received from Halonen,” he adds.

Kettunen points out that Halonen’s emphasis on the importance of Finland helping forge global solutions to global structural problems contrasts sharply with Niinistö’s keener interest in nurturing a healthy economy and raising issues of individual morality when discussing social problems.

SixDegrees asks

Jennifer Ramirez is a student from Columbia.

Would you have voted for Sauli Niinistö (either in the first or second round) if you’d had the right to vote?

No, not at all.

Who do you think will be the better president, Tarja Halonen or Sauli Niinistö? And why?

Halonen. I think she has a more humanistic approach to politics due to her work in NGOs. For some reason, even if you are not a Finnish citizen, you felt that as president she was closer to the people - you could relate to her as a human being.

What issues would you like to see Niinistö focus on during his term in office?

I think the bureaucracy and the immigration policies in Finland are somehow absurd. I could never imagine that a country like Finland has a system that reminds me of Russia or even my own country Colombia. How can it be possible that many people need to take a course called ‘ABC of Finnish bureaucracy’ to understand how to make being here less complicated than it already is?

Yuri Kuratov from Russia works in robotics.Would you have voted for Sauli Niinistö (either in the first or second round) if you’d had the right to vote?

Definitely not. I would have voted for Pekka Haavisto is both rounds. Not so much because he was the Green candidate, but because seems more affable and friendly.

Who do you think will be the better president, Tarja Halonen or Sauli Niinistö? And why?

I think Tarja Halonen has been one of the best leaders of an EU country in the past decade. Niinistö might be great for the economic advancement of Finland, but Halonen always looked like she actually cared about the people she met.

What issues would you like to see Niinistö focus on during his term in office?

In this current economic climate, the promotion of trade and industry with other countries should be his primary concern. In saying that I don’t think the issues of civil rights in the countries he visits should be forgotten. To be liked by the Finnish public, Niinistö needs to be a little more Haavisto - if that makes sense.

Mirko Lukic is a graphic designer from Serbia.

Would you have voted for Sauli Niinistö (either in the first or second round) if you’d had the right to vote?

No. I wouldn’t have voted for either second-round candidate in the first round, but would have gone with Haavisto in the run-off against Niinistö.

Who do you think will be the better president, Tarja Halonen or Sauli Niinistö? And why?

It is impossible to say really. They are very different people, at least in the public’s eyes, so they have their own personality traits. Niinistö isn’t even in the job yet – let’s give him a chance.

What issues would you like to see Niinistö focus on during his term in office?

I think to keep on building the good relations with Russia is very important. As part of that I think NATO membership would be a negative thing – at least regarding trade with our biggest neighbour. I think for Russia, Niinistö is an unknown quantity and he needs to allay those fears.

“The background of Niinistö as Finland’s finance minister and vice-president of the European Investment Bank obviously supports the role of economic arguments in his message, especially in the context of the current euro crisis. The idea of external economic necessities that can only be met with introducing tough national policies has a long history in Finland, and Niinistö seems to be a clear-cut representative of this mode of thought.”

Outi Kuittinen, a researcher at Demos Helsinki, a think tank that prepared and wrote 2010’s Country Brand Report at the initiative of then-foreign minister Alexander Stubb, brings up similar themes as Kettunen.

“President Halonen has been very active in global issues, especially at the UN. This hasn’t been the profile of Sauli Niinistö. However, he seems to believe that everyone can act in important issues. In his campaign he highlighted ‘Finnish acts’: joint ventures Finns have made and solutions they’ve developed to tackle different issues,” explains Kuittinen.

“So, what Niinistö could bring to Finland’s image is action by the people,” she continues. “In this election people showed a lot of interest in taking part, acting themselves for their preferred candidate and the values they presented, and both candidates mobilised this well. We think this momentum shouldn’t be wasted but rather should be taken into use permanently. This would also be in the spirit of the Country Brand.”


Niinistö, a lawyer by trade, became an MP in 1987 and was made leader of the NCP in 1994, a position he held until 2001. After the 1995 parliamentary elections, the NCP remained in government and Niinistö was initially appointed justice minister before taking charge at the Ministry of Finance.

Niinistö stood down from the chairmanship of the NCP in 2001 and chose not to run in the 2003 parliamentary elections. Instead, he went to Luxembourg for four years before returning to Finnish politics after the 2007 parliamentary elections, in which he secured the biggest-ever vote haul by a single candidate in Finnish history. Although he was tipped to become Finland’s foreign minister in the post-election government, he was ultimately made Speaker of the Parliament. He chose not to run for re-election to the Parliament last year at least partly because, one would imagine, he was already being described as odds-on favourite to become the country’s next president.

This was the second time Niinistö set his sights on the presidency, having also ran for president in 2006, when he narrowly lost out to Halonen in the second round of voting. Thus, he’s pulled off the challenging trick of losing once but maintaining enough popularity and momentum to triumph second time round. Other notable “loser-winner” presidents have been Richard Nixon, who lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960 but returned to win in 1968, and France’s François Mitterrand, who only succeeded at the third time of asking.

The death of Niinistö’s first wife, who was killed in a car accident in 1995, and the media’s coverage of this tragic event raised his profile among the Finnish public. His dating former Miss Finland and ex-MP Tanja Karpela was also poured over in the press, as was his marriage in 2009 to Jenni Haukio due to the age difference Niinistö and Haukio share and the hush-hush nature of their relationship up until that point. On top of his political career and love life, Niinistö is also known for his hobby of roller-skating as well as for surviving, together with one of his two adult sons, the tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.

Foreign affairs

The Finnish presidency differs substantially from presidencies in states like the US, Russia and France. There was a time when Finland can be described as having had an authoritarian presidency, which then became something more akin to a semi-presidential system where power was shared by the president and the government. However, in today’s Finland the president clearly plays second fiddle to the government. For instance, Finnish presidents were previously deeply involved in domestic politics, such as government formation, but nowadays it’s only really foreign policy where he or she holds actual power.

Most of Niinistö’s international experience comes from the EU, where, according to the Constitution, it’s the government and not the president that takes the lead, but this doesn’t mean he’ll be out of his depth.

“I’ve the feeling he’s very well connected and respected,” says International Relations professor Hiski Haukkala from the University of Tampere.

“He has contacts with important figures in the Russian elite, though not with Vladimir Putin. If there are gaps in his network, the presidency will afford him the chance to rectify the situation,” he continues. Haukkala also mentions Niinistö’s meeting with Vice President of the United States Joe Biden last year during the latter’s visit to Finland.

Many expect Finland’s relations with the US to improve with Niinistö as president, reversing the slight estrangement that’s taken place during Halonen’s term in office.

As for Russia, Niinistö has said that he sees steps on the road to greater democracy having been taken there. Commentators have also suggested that under Niinistö prospects of good relations with Finland’s eastern neighbour are favourable. With this in mind, however, Niinistö is on the record as having said that he would bring up the topic of human rights when meeting with Russia’s leaders. He’s also said that he’d do the same with China’s leadership, although meeting with the Dalai Lama, if the Tibetan dignitary were to visit Finland again, would be one step too far in Niinistö opinion.

Whenever the topic of Finnish foreign policy is raised, the question of whether Finland should join NATO looms large and can cause bitter debate between the “yes” and “no” camps. Niinistö is undoubtedly pro-NATO but stated in the run-up to the election that he wouldn’t be pushing for membership for Finland in the next six years. Whether he’ll try to subtly promote membership or simply ignore the subject cannot be known for sure, but Haukkala thinks the latter scenario is more likely.

“My feeling is that ‘the NATO question’ has lost most of its relevance. The level of crisis management cooperation Finland shares with NATO is already good and Article 5 [of the North Atlantic Treaty which states that an attack on one party to the treaty will be considered an attack on all parties] is of no great relevance in the current situation,” he argues.

Rather, it’s another international organisation, the EU, that will consume the Finnish government’s as well as its incoming president’s attention for the foreseeable future. While Niinistö won’t, as a rule, be taking part in EU summits and the like, Haukkala believes that the former finance minister will be indispensible to the government.

“He’s a person who knows financial and economic matters, especially in the EU, through and through,” says the University of Tampere professor. “If Greece goes bankrupt and ultimately leaves the euro, for example, Niinistö could prove invaluable, as the government will need to analyse the situation and Niinistö could act as an interlocutor in such discussions.”

Haukkala also notes that an NCP-led government like we have at present would be especially eager to hear Niinistö’s thoughts on topics pertaining to the euro’s future. At the same time, the NCP is currently one of six parties of government, and some members of the cabinet may not welcome Niinistö getting too involved in government decision-making. Also, if Niinistö starts to make public statements or take up positions in meetings that contradict the government’s line, this could irk certain ministers. For example, Minister for Foreign Affairs Erkki Tuomioja “isn’t afraid to speak his mind,” as Haukkala puts it.

However, Haukkala points out that, perhaps as a result of Finland’s size, all key players in Finnish politics know one another, so no serious surprises are generally thrown up and disagreements are uncommon. Moreover, there aren’t any particularly contentious issues that Niinistö and individual cabinet ministers are likely to clash over.

On the home front

Issues Niinistö will likely emphasise as president

EU and eurozone stability
The economy in general
Defence cooperation
Good relations with the US and Russia
Individual endeavours

Issues President Halonen has emphasised
during her time in office

Human rights
Global structural inequity
Gender equality
Sustainable development
Good relations with Russia

During election campaigning, Niinistö and his opponents were grilled on their positions concerning everything from taxation and abortion to the marginalisation of young people and animal rights. Unfortunately for those Finns who based their decision on whom to vote for on these primarily domestic matters, Niinistö won’t be able to do very much to affect these issues, at least directly. As Haukkala suggests, “The weakened nature of the presidency hasn’t entered the psyche of the Finnish public,” many of whom still associate the presidency with Urho Kekkonen.

What Niinistö will be able to do is to try to steer public debate. Yet Haukkala thinks there may be even more scope for action in domestic affairs given a specific set of circumstances. He says that if Finland were faced with a prolonged political crisis or extraordinary situation, the president may be called upon to act. “This wouldn’t be an impossible development,” he says, giving as an example the difficulty Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen had when forming a new government last summer.

As for Niinistö’s take on multiculturalism and racism in Finland, issues that obviously touch the lives of foreigners living here, the president-elect’s views are relatively liberal albeit not radical.

“The general impression I get based on a few texts, TV interviews and discussions is that Niinistö is aware of the problems connected to multiculturalism,” says Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Eastern Finland Vesa Puuronen.

“Especially, he’s stressed human rights as a basic starting point of both political decision-making and the everyday interaction of people,” Puuronen continues.

Certainly when Niinistö has been asked for his thoughts on hate speech, a topic that became a hot talking point last year, he’s stated that we can’t forcefully change attitudes but, rather, can provide people with the facts and try to influence others by way of setting them a positive example.

The closely related subject of racism is also an area where Niinistö chooses to emphasise everyday experiences of Finns. For instance, when asked by SixDegrees’s sister publication Helsinki Times to rate how racist a country Finland is on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being not racist at all and 10 extremely racist, Niinistö had this to say:

“I haven’t met one person in Finland who’s said to me that they’ve had bad experiences of immigrants. At the same time, we read a lot in the media about racist sentiment in Finnish society. Therefore, I’d say somewhere between 4 and 6 based on the content of this ongoing debate.”

Sauli Niinistö may be less interested in attempting to help end the plight of the world’s poor than Tarja Halonen, and lack the common touch that boosted her popularity and which has become a hallmark of her presidency, but for someone with his juridical and financial background he’s surprisingly capable of speaking to Finns at their level, and this could be of great significance in helping him maintain his own level of popularity. What will he achieve in the next six or twelve years and what legacy will he leave? These are impossible to foresee and matters over which he may have little control, as so much is determined by circumstance. Yet it’s unlikely that Niinistö will just sit back and let events take their course.

Text Allan Bain,
Illustration Hans Eiskonen