The first round of presidential elections were held in Finland on January 23, with a runoff scheduled to take place on February 5. The President of Finland is directly elected for a term of six years and is immediately re-eligible once. Interestingly, as Finland amended its constitution to make the President directly elected (in 1994), it went in suit with a significant reduction in the President’s powers, transforming Finland from a French-like semi-presidential system to a rather parliamentary system with a ceremonial presidency. While the President retains power over appointments, defense and foreign policy, the presidency’s powers vis-a-vis legislation has been curtailed and a veto can be overridden very easily. Despite the limited powers, the President is still a fairly prestigious position and the Presidents in recent years have become seen as sources of stability. Presidential elections also attract very heavy turnout, often 80% or more of voters, who are said to appreciate the personal nature of the election in contrast to party-list parliamentary elections.
Since 1982, the Presidency has been held by the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Presidential elections since 1994 have all been decided in fairly close runoffs, and they have been straight left-right contests with the left united behind the SDP while the ‘non-socialist’ parties unite behind whichever of their candidates placed second in the first round. For example, in 2006, incumbent President Tarja Halonen of the SDP (backed by the Left Alliance, VAS) won 46% in the first round against only 24% for conservative candidate (National Coalition, KOK) Sauli Niinistö, but in the runoff Niinistö won 48% as he received the backing of other candidates including then-Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen of the Centre Party (KESK).
This year’s presidential election follows a legislative election in April last year which saw the emergence of Timo Soini’s populist True Finns (PS) as the third largest party with 19%, closely behind KOK (20%) and the SDP (19%) and ahead of former Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi’s Centre Party (15.8%). Mari Kiviniemi’s party paid a heavy price for the government’s support of the EU bailout of Ireland and Greece. Soini’s agenda, mixing left-wing rhetoric on economic and welfare issue with Euroscepticism, nationalism, anti-parliamentarianism and isolationism proved popular with voters in an election fought around the bailout and political-financial scandals in the Finnish political class. However, differences on European policy were far too vast to bridge and PS ended up staying outside government, joining KESK in opposition. All other parties – led by Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen’s National Coalition – are in government which thus includes the SDP, the Left Alliance (VAS), the Greens, the Swedish People’s Party (SFP-RKP) and the Christian
Since his surprising strong showing in the 2006 election, Sauli Niinistö of the governing KOK has been something of a “President in waiting” or at least runaway favourite for this year’s election. Niinistö served as Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister between 1995 and 2001 (actually, he was Justice Minister between 1995 and 1996) and as Speaker between 2007 and 2011. Like most of his party, Niinistö is rather libertarian: right-wing on economic issues, but liberal on moral issues. Niinistö and KOK are both pro-European, and Niinistö says that only inflation will help Europe’s indebted countries settle their problems. Niinistö’s appeal breaks that of his party as he already seems to have a personal stature and a reputation as a competent and independent politician.
The race featured several other big names. The SDP nominated former Prime Minister (1995-2003) Paavo Lipponen is suspected of being an East German agent of influence and has been criticized – notably by EU milieus – because of his ties to Nord Stream, a Russian gas project. Lipponen ran a very pro-European campaign, supporting greater European integration. The True Finns (PS) nominated their leader, Timo Soini, who ran for President in 2006 winning only 3% of the vote. Soini, obviously, ran a Eurosceptic campaign, arguing that Greece’s departure from the Euro-zone is inevitable. He has warned against what he says is growing centralization in financial decision making in the EU behind the ECB.
The Centre Party (KESK) nominated former Foreign Minister and longtime politician Paavo Väyrynen. Väyrynen, who has served in various cabinets since the mid-1970s, already ran for President in 1988 and 1994, both times without success. On European policy, KESK has usually been divided, historically being rather Eurosceptic but moving towards more pro-European positions under the leadership of Matti Vanhanen and Mari Kiviniemi. Since their defeat, KESK seems to have moved back towards more Euro-critical positions, likely in a bid to woo those Centre voters who voted for PS in the April 2011 election. Since Finland joined the EU in 1994, Väyrynen has always been critical of EU membership and then Eurozone membership, and has thus been a thorn in the side for his party’s leadership. He returned to government in 2007 as Foreign Trade Minister, but was defeated running in a new constituency in 2011. Väyrynen ran a Euro-critical campaign, joining Soini in saying that the Eurozone would dissolve and in criticizing the pro-European Lipponen and Niinistö of misleading the public and the legislature when Finland joined the Euro. He supports leaving the Euro.
The Greens nominated Pekka Haavisto, an openly gay MP and former Environment Minister in the 1990s. After his tenure in government, Haavisto worked for the UN and the EU, notably serving as the EU’s representative in Sudan during the Darfur peace negotiations. Haavisto is liberal and pro-European. The Left Alliance (VAS) nominated its leader and incumbent Culture Minister Paavo Arhinmäki, who ran as the ‘anti-NATO’ candidate. The Swedish People’s Party nominated Eva Biaudet, a former MP and cabinet minister and incumbent Ombudsman for Minorities. The Christian Democrats nominated Sari Essayah MEP, a former world and European race walking (10km) champion.
Turnout was 72.7%, down a bit from 2006 but up from 70.5% in the 2011 election. Results were:
Sauli Niinistö (KOK) 37%
Pekka Haavisto (Green) 18.8%
Paavo Väyrynen (KESK) 17.5%
Timo Soini (PS) 9.4%
Paavo Lipponen (SDP) 6.7%
Paavo Arhinmäki (VAS) 5.5%
Eva Biaudet (SFP-RKP) 2.7%
Sari Essayah (KD) 2.5%
The runaway favourite and leader in all polling since day one, Sauli Niinistö predictably came out on top. With 37%, he far outruns his party’s showing in the last election – just a tad above 20% – which really shows how Niinistö has built a large personal vote for himself which far surpasses the traditional base of KOK. Of course, his support is not so overwhelming that he could win by the first round, but no candidate has done that since the Finnish President has been directly elected. He enters the runoff, which will be held on February 5, as the favourite but like every other runoff contest since 1994 it is inevitable that the race will narrow considerably. What makes this election particularly interesting, however, is not Sauli Niinistö’s victory – that was predictable – but rather who placed second.
Pekka Haavisto had been surging in polls in the last few days, placing him in contention for the runoff. On election night, early returns initially placed him behind the KESK’s Paavo Väyrynen but as votes piled up from urbanized Helsinki and southern Finland, he ran past Väyrynen and placed himself into second. While polls had picked up Haavisto’s surge in the last few days, advance voting (11-17 January) indicates that he had a rather important surge in the final stretch: he won 14.6% of the advance votes, quite a bit behind Väyrynen (18%) and Niinistö (39.6%). On election day votes only, he won 22% against 17% for Väyrynen and 34.7% for Niinistö. Niinistö had a similar late surge in the 2006 runoff: if I recall correctly, he only lost because he had done poorly in advance voting. Haavisto’s support, of course, like that of Niinistö, far surpasses that of his party which won 7.3% in the 2011 election. Haavisto built a strong campaign in part through the use of social media, but he has always been popular as a person because of his character: he is said to treat all equally, regardless of rank, and places emphasis on the power of dialogue and reconciliation. Haavisto – who is openly gay – recently met with a particularly anti-gay PS MP and the meeting ended quite successfully for both involved. Finnish media has also talked of Haavisto’s success as some sort of “counter-jytky” – a backlash by liberal voters following the PS’ success in 2011.
As in 1994, Paavo Väyrynen was ultimately unsuccessful in making it to the runoff despite having been seen by the media as the likely runner-up even in the final days. With 17.5%, he builds a bit on KESK’s terrible 15.8% in the 2011 election. For KEKS, Väyrynen can be credited for at least one thing: attracting back some of the traditional rural KESK voters who had abandoned the party in favour of Timo Soini’s True Finns in the 2011 election. Väyrynen’s Euro-critical campaign, quite similar to Soini’s campaign on European issues in fact, was the perfect fit for that type of rural, conservative voter who have formed the backbone of KESK but whose preference for Soini’s PS in the 2011 election destroyed KESK, which lost over 7% of the vote in that election.
Timo Soini’s result is about 10% less than what his party won in 2011. It has been said that PS’ true focus this year are the fall local elections, but it is still a fairly weak showing for the sensation of the 2011 election. Väyrynen likely won the support of quite a few PS voters. It has also been written that Soini’s personal support is weaker than that of his party, which might sound bizarre given how Soini is the party and all, but it is not too uncommon. In Austria at least, Heinz-Christian Strache’s personal ratings on suitability for Prime Minister are much lower than that of his party – and Strache is becoming as closely connected to his party as Soini is with his.
Paavo Lipponen and the left in general had a horrible night. The next President of Finland – for the first time since 1982 – will not be a Social Democrat (and for the first time since 1956, will not be a centrist) and the SDP will not be in the runoff. The Finnish left as a whole has won a horrible result, barely above 12% of the total vote. Lipponen’s popularity was probably hit a bit by the Nord Stream case, but he was not a particularly horrible candidate and the SDP is not in horrible shape (16% in polls, down from 19% in 2011). Lipponen is a very right-wing Social Democrat, so those who liked him voted directly for Niinistö, who also enjoyed strong support with old voters – a key SDP constituency. On the other hand, Haavisto likely took a look from traditional left-wing SDP voters. The VAS’ Paavo Arhinmäki also did pretty poorly – his party had won 8% in 2011. VAS has been hit by entering the right-leaning government and it has also been a source of division inside the party: a few MPs walked out from the party following VAS leadership’s decision to join cabinet. Haavisto probably took support from some VAS voters, after VAS had took some votes from the Greens in 2011.
Biaudet and Essayah did pretty poorly compared to the 4% their parties won in 2011, though in both their cases they did better than their parties candidates in 2006.
The map of the result shows us a pretty interesting north-south split, with Niinistö’s support concentrated in the urbanized, more industrialized regions of southern Finland and Väyrynen sweeping the sparsely populated rural areas up north, the traditional bedrock of KESK support. Niinistö appears to have won some traditionally left-leaning working-class cities in southern Finland, in addition to the more conservative Helsinki suburbs or Turku. Haavisto’s support, unsurprisingly, was also heavily concentrated in the urbanized south. He took 22% in Uusimaa and 34.5% in Helsinki – and he actually won election day votes in the Finnish capital with 39% against 34% for Niinistö. While Väyrynen, placing third, won a ton of municipalities – rural, northern for the most part – Haavisto, placing second, won nothing. Eva Biaudet, of course, won the Swedish-speaking municipalities of coastal Finland and the Swedish-speaking Åland Islands (though by no means was the vote in the homogeneously Swedish Åland Islands homogeneously behind the Swedish candidate; Lipponen did very well with 25% and second place). A similar thing had happened in 2006, when Niinistö far outran the KESK’s Vanhanen for second but ended up winning only two towns (two affluent Helsinki suburbs) while Vanhanen swept a bunch of rural Centre strongholds in religious Oulu country (but nobody lives there).
The runoff will be particularly interesting, as instead of being an old-style left/right contest or even a straight pro-EU/anti-EU contest, it opposes a ‘conservative’ to a ‘liberal’ who are both pro-European and fairly centrist, Haavisto being the most left-wing of the two. Anti-European voters who backed Soini and Väyrynen may choose to opt out from the runoff, but those who do vote will need to choose between two pro-European centrists. Niinistö remains the favourite, but if he wins it will not be a landslide (polls say 74-26, which obviously won’t happen). Haavisto is going to get serious momentum out of his result and if he replicates his first round campaign in the runoff, he could prove a match to Niinistö. Niinistö will likely grasp conservative voters, those who backed the PS, KESK and KD candidates in the first round. Haavisto will take heavy support from VAS voters and probably a good share of SDP voters and a fair share of Swedish voters. YLE had a rumour that Soini had said he could back Haavisto in the runoff, which is interesting and while he has said he has not indicated his preference at this point, it might be indicative of something. The overlap between PS and KOK is usually pretty thin, but the overlap between PS and Green is almost in-existent as the two parties traditionally hate each other. The race is on.