Presidential elections will be held on 22 January 2012.

Just who will be elected as Finland’s next president?

The race for the presidency is heating up. Although there’s been a lot of talk about it since the summer, now that all the main parties have named their candidates, election campaigning has stepped up a gear.

At the moment, the National Coalition’s candidate, Sauli Niinistö, is way out ahead of the rest, consistently chalking up opinion poll ratings in excess of 40 per cent, and that’s with around a fifth of Finns still undecided as to whom to vote for. Niinistö’s closest rivals are the Centre’s Paavo Väyrynen, the Social Democrats’ Paavo Lipponen and Timo Soini of Perussuomalaiset (a.k.a. the Finns Party).

Yet these figures can be a little misleading. Unless a candidate wins over half of all valid votes in the first round of voting, the two candidates who gained the most votes go through to a second round. Therefore, the popularity of a candidate who only made it to the second round by the skin of their teeth can suddenly be given a boost simply because they’re the only alternative to the first-round winner left.

The other candidates running are Green MP Pekka Haavisto, the Swedish People’s Party’s Eva Biaudet, leader of the Left Alliance and current Minister of Culture and Sport Paavo Arhinmäki, and the Christian Democrat European parliamentarian Sari Essayah.

The job of the President is most associated with foreign policy decision-making, although he or she has a number of domestic responsibilities as well. According to the Constitution, the President should work with the Prime Minister and the Government (especially the Minister for Foreign Affairs) on matters pertaining to foreign policy, but if disagreements arise they’re not so easy to resolve.

Yet focusing on the formal responsibilities of the President is to overlook the other roles that they fulfil. The President is the father or mother of the nation, whose job it is to show Finland in the best possible light on the international stage and to act as a guiding light to Finns.

Introducing the main candidates

Niinistö is a former finance minister and leader of the National Coalition. He is smooth and doesn’t offend anybody’s sensibilities but also doesn’t set anyone’s heart on fire. Niinistö lost in the second round to Tarja Halonen in 2006, but it’s looking like 2012 is going to be his year.

Väyrynen, on the other hand, is the diametric opposite – you either love him or hate him. His is a bit of political hard-luck story: he narrowly missed out on becoming the Prime Minister in 1987 and had his 1994 presidential campaign somewhat sabotaged by misleading press stories circulated suspiciously close to the first round of voting. In spite of his tale of woe, Väyrynen is famous for his “never say die” attitude.

A gimmick some of Lipponen’s supporters have taken into use is likening their man to rock music. Hard, lacking in subtlety and the proud owner of a pair of big, sexy hands (according to his wife), “rock” sums Lipponen up pretty well. The former Prime Minister isn’t afraid of ruffling a few feathers, and as an unabashed supporter of the EU and the euro, his thick skin has come in handy over the last few months.

Soini is the quintessential underdog – the political elite doesn’t like him and neither does high society, but average Finnish citizens do. However, the down-to-earth charm that has served him so well in domestic politics may rule him out in many Finns’ minds for a job where the country’s international reputation is at stake.

Haavisto and Soini are like chalk and cheese. The former leader of the Greens is gay, internationally minded and environmentally conscious. Upon being named Minister of the Environment in 1995, Haavisto became the first representative of a European Green party to hold a cabinet position, and he’s also worked for the UN Environmental Programme and was involved in negotiations surrounding the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement.

“The race for the
presidency is
heating up.”

The female perspective

Disappointingly, Biaudet is one of only two women running for president from the biggest eight parties. On top of a 15-year career as an MP, she has also been the OSCE Special Representative on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and is currently Finland’s Ombudsman for Minorities. She’s also the only Finland-Swede of the eight main candidates.

Essayah, the other female candidate, is a Finnish-Moroccan former world championship-winning walker. After hanging up her trainers, she joined the Christian Democrats and became an MP a few years later. At present, she’s a European parliamentarian, known for her controversial views on abortion and opposition to Palestinian membership of the UN.

Lastly, Arhinmäki, the youngest-ever presidential candidate in Finnish history at 34-turning-35, has become something of a poster boy in radical political circles. An avid football fan, he supports the English club Chelsea – a team owned by a Russian oligarch, somewhat ironically.

Presidential elections will be held on 22 January 2012.

Allan Bain
Graphic: Hans Eiskonen