In the beginning of February, Finland elected its new president for a six-year term. Having completed her second term, the outgoing Tarja Halonen could not be reelected.

Eight political parties nominated candidates for the presidency: Pekka Haavisto for the Green League, Paavo Lipponen for the Social Democratic Party of Finland, Timo Soini for the True Finns, Sauli Niinistö for the National Coalition Party, Eva Biaudet for the Swedish People’s Party, Paavo Väyrynen for the Centre Party, Sari Essayah for the Christian Democrats, and Paavo Arhinmäki for the Left Alliance.

In Estonia, the president is elected either by Parliament or an electoral council; Finland elects its president through a direct vote. Although the Finnish president’s power has been significantly curbed in recent years, mainly leaving intact representative functions, the position still provides influence that a skillful politician can use effectively. Direct elections rule out the possibility of party arrangements and political manipulation in determining the president, thus making the election campaign much more intriguing and diverse.

As expected, the main policy issues of the election were the European Union and the euro zone crisis, economic issues, rising Russian influence, and NATO membership. The campaign was a typical Nordic one - polite and circumspect, and free of mudslinging. In the event that criticism was expressed, it was directed toward supporters and not the candidates themselves. It could even be said that the presidential elections were boring and uneventful. The most extreme actions involved the tearing down of campaign posters. Interestingly, these attacks were mainly directed toward Timo Soini. Nor was there anything surprising in the television appearances or debates, in which the presence of several presidential candidates could be described as etiolated. The exceptions were Niinistö and Haavisto, in which case both candidates and their backing were strong.

From the start, the front runners were Sauli Niinistö of the National Coalition Party; Timo Soini of the True Finns, who unexpectedly failed to achieve the same success he had during the parliamentary elections; and the Centre Party’s Paavo Väyrnynen, who came into politics during the time of Kekkonen, and whom the party did not initially endorse but did so only later, when it became evident that Väyrynen had a large support base. The Social Democrats, whose candidate Lipponen was considered too old, suffered an embarrassing failure. Biaudet, Essayah and Arhinmäki were marginal players whose votes were largely given to influence the results of other candidates.

In the first round of the election, on January 22, none of the candidates received more than 50 percent of the votes. It is worth noting that most of the candidates who did not make it into the second round vowed to give their votes to Niinistö. On February 5, Niinistö faced off with Haavisto, who surprisingly came in second in the first round.

More than 1.8 million people voted Sauli Niinistö into office (Haavisto received 1.1 million votes). Niinistö received 62.6 percent of the votes and Haavisto 37.4 percent. The new president received more votes than his predecessors, Martti Ahtisaari and Tarja Halonen. More importantly, the election marked the end of the Social Democrats’ three decades in power, now replaced by the victory of a conservative world view. For that reason the election represented, at least in theory, a significant turning point.

On the other hand, voter participation had not been so low since Urho Kaleva Kekkonen was elected president in 1978. Another curiosity was an unprecedented number of spoilt election ballots - more than 25,000 in just the second round.

Sauli Niinistö, the presidential candidate of the National Coalition Party, is followed by a TV crew on his way to the election night rally at the Finlandia Hall in Helsinki on 5 February 2012.

As was already mentioned, the biggest surprise of the presidential election was the success of Haavisto, who managed to effectively use social media to his benefit. In fact, widespread use of social media and social networking by all of the candidates was the newest characteristic of the presidential election. An elections expert featured in Finnish broadcasting, Risto Uimonen, has said that, in the end, Haavisto’s homosexuality and partnership with a younger South American man became his fatal flaw in the election. Other influencing factors included Haavisto’s civil service (the president serves as supreme commander of the armed forces), lack of higher education, and the fact that he is not a church member. There were doubts about whether Haavisto could cope in complicated situations, such as in Russian relations. His fairly large number of votes was also the result of protest votes against Niinistö. Haavisto himself said that time was against him and he would only have needed a few more weeks to reach success.

The new president, Niinistö, is popular among the people of Finland and has a long political experience. His supporters voted for traditional values, security and stability. The election will likely have little impact on EU-Finnish relations, although Niinistö’s campaign was sometimes critical of the EU. Niinistö does not have the same kind of close personal ties with Estonia as did his forerunner.

During his campaign, Niinistö repeatedly asserted that Finland will not join NATO. Although baffling for us, the lukewarm attitude toward NATO tends to make Finland, lying between two centers of power, a geopolitical gray zone. Although Russia is not currently seen as a direct threat, its invasion of Georgia has stirred caution in Finland as well. Compared to his forerunner Halonen, Niinistö, who has the rank of captain in the army reserve, is more concrete in his views of Russia. From the Estonian standpoint, this could be beneficial. 

Henn Põlluaas. Photo: Mihkel Maripuu/Postimees