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New president won’t start a revolution

By Kyösti Karvonen, February 2012

Photo: Antti Aimo-Koivisto/LehtikuvaPresidential candidate Sauli Niinistö, FinlandSauli Niinistö meets supporters at a shopping centre in Tampere a week before the second round of the presidential elections.

Following Sauli Niinistö’s resounding but unsurprising victory in the Finnish presidential elections, Kyösti Karvonen, managing editor of the newspaper Kaleva, tells us what to expect over the next six years.

It was as cold that Sunday night, even for early February in Finland. Upon entering Helsinki’s brand new Music Centre, which doubles as a media hub during national elections, Sauli Niinistö was ushered directly to a live TV broadcast.

“It wasn’t a revolution, and there isn’t going to be one,” said Niinistö. That formed one of the first comments of the soon-to-be president of Finland after a substantial victory in the second round of elections on February 5, 2012.

Those words will most likely epitomise Niinistö’s six-year term in office as well.

Finland’s 12th president starts his tenure in March with a much-awaited inauguration speech before Parliament. It appears that no major changes in Finnish foreign and security policy are in store for some time, if at all. Yes, there will be new nuances and a new personal style, but the essence will remain much the same.

Tradition indicates that Niinistö’s first state visits after assuming office will take him to Sweden, Estonia and Russia. Speculation continues about when he could be invited to the White House.

In one of Niinistö’s most urgent tasks as president, he will put his weight behind Finland’s lobbying campaign to get elected to the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for a two-year period starting in 2013. Finland is competing with Australia and Luxembourg for two seats available to countries from the Western European and Others Group.

Strong mandate, limited powers

Photo: Antti Aimo-Koivisto/LehtikuvaClick to enlarge the picture
Just a couple days after being elected president of Finland, Sauli Niinistö sat in the gallery with his wife, Jenni Haukio, at the annual opening of Parliament.

Garnering 62.6 percent of the vote, Niinistö (National Coalition Party) won a strong mandate from the Finnish electorate. The margin of his majority over Pekka Haavisto (Green Party), the surprise rival in the run-off, was the largest since the current direct voting system was adopted in 1994.

In a way, the popular mandate grates against an amended constitution that diminishes the prerogatives of the president. The Finns tend to see their president as a kind of surrogate monarch who stays above the fray and keeps bickering politicians in check.

Under a slightly rewritten constitution that enters into force simultaneously with the new president’s inauguration, foreign and security policy is still directed by the president, in cooperation with the government.

In Finnish parlance, this formulation means that bilateral relations with Russia, the US, China and other non-EU countries remain part of the president’s domain, as does interaction with international organisations such as the UN.

In the amended constitution, presidential powers are somewhat reduced, even in foreign and security policy. If the president and the government do not concur on an issue, the government has the right to present it to Parliament for a vote. Thus, with parliamentary blessing, the government can override a presidential veto. In practice, an extraordinary situation like this is unlikely to occur.

The president is the supreme commander of the armed forces, appoints military personnel and plays a key role in decisions to send Finnish troops to military crisis management operations. Presidential powers in daily politics are limited and formal.

Life-changing experiences

Photo: Sari Gustafsson/LehtikuvaClick to enlarge the picture
How does it feel? Niinistö holds a press conference the day after being elected.

Niinistö’s election marks a first in Finnish political history: Never before have politicians from the moderate conservative National Coalition Party held the president and prime minister posts simultaneously.

To be sure, Niinistö leaves his party membership card at the door before entering office, as is customary for the Finnish president. Furthermore – possibly for campaign strategy purposes – he began distancing himself from the party in the years leading up to the election. He is known as an independent thinker, a sinuous talker and a demanding boss.

More than anything, Niinistö’s strong showing in the elections can be traced to his long-standing personal popularity, which stretches back more than a decade. He seemed to have a chance of winning in 2000, but he bowed out of the race at the last moment. In 2006 he lost by a hair-thin margin when Tarja Halonen was re-elected. In other words, he was a president-in-waiting.

Niinistö’s personal history contains elements of tragedy: He lost first wife in a car crash in 1995. In December 2004, Niinistö and his two sons were vacationing in Thailand when the tsunami struck. He barely survived the disaster, hanging on to a telephone pole with his younger son for hours while his elder son took refuge on a hotel roof.

According to his mother, he has been a changed man ever since the ordeal. Since all his belongings had been washed away, Niinistö ended up flying back to Finland clothed in a bathrobe.

Evidence of new directions

Photo: Sari Gustafsson/LehtikuvaClick to enlarge the picture
Outgoing President Tarja Halonen (centre right) shakes hands with president-elect Sauli Niinstö during a tour of the presidential residence Mäntyniemi in Helsinki, as spouses Jenni Haukio (left) and Pentti Arajärvi look on.

Niinistö’s election marks an end to the three-decade grip of the Social Democrats on the presidency. Haavisto’s surge to the run-off stage of the elections formed another first: He became the first Green Party candidate to progress to the second round. He was also the first openly gay presidential candidate. Niinistö’s nephew Ville Niinistö chairs the Green Party and is minister of the environment in the present government.

Sauli Niinistö’s victory provided new evidence of the conservative tide in Finnish politics. The party dominance on major posts will become even stronger when Finland appoints a new commissioner, a conservative, to the European Commission.

A lawyer by profession, Niinistö is best versed in economic policy, with a background that includes posts as minister of finance and as vice-chairman of the board of directors at the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg. He has been active for years in charity work. He has also fared well as an author, with two books to his name.

Niinistö, 63, is married to Jenni Haukio, 34, who has been working as a press officer for the National Coalition Party, a job she now vacates. She is also a published author with three volumes of poetry, and was recently hired as program director for the Turku Book Fair.


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