The second round of presidential elections were held in Finland 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.
I covered the details and results of the first round on January 23 here. The runoff opposed Sauli Niinistö of the ruling centre-right KOK, a former finance minister, party leader and 2006 presidential runner-up to Pekka Haavisto of the Green League, a former cabinet minister and UN diplomat. Niinistö, who narrowly lost the 2006 race to term-limited SDP President Tarja Halonen has been the runaway favourite for 2012 ever since he did so well in 2006, and he emerged from the first round with 37% against 18.8% for Haavisto. Besides Haavisto’s historic feat in placing the Greens in the runoff, the first round was marked by two other factors: for the first time since 1982, the President will not be from the left-wing SDP after the SDP’s candidate, former Prime Minister, Paavo Lipponen, placed fifth with 6.7% of the vote. Secondly, eurosceptic candidates did poorly and neither of the two big eurosceptic contenders – former Centre Party (KESK) Prime Minister Paavo Väyrynen or populist right-winger Timo Soini of the True Finns (PS) – were able to make it into the runoff. Soini’s 9% performance was about 10% below that his party had garnered in the 2011 legislative elections, and it won his fourth place, while Väyrynen narrowly lost out second place to Haavisto with 17.5%, slightly above his party’s disastrous 2011 results. As such, the runoff was unique in that it was not a traditional left-right contest as all presidential runoffs since 1994 have been, nor was it even a pro-European/eurosceptic matchup either. It was probably closest to a liberal (Haavisto)-conservative (Niinistö) matchup, but even then the ideological differences between the two pro-European, ‘tolerant’, socially liberal candidates were sparse.
Turnout was exceptionally low at 68.9%, the lowest ever turnout in a type of election which has usually interested Finnish voters. Invalid or spoiled ballots also reached a high.
Sauli Niinistö (KOK) 62.6%
Pekka Haavisto (Green) 37.4%
Despite Haavisto’s last-minute success in the first round which made his distant second the sensation of the day, Niinistö actually remained the favourite throughout. Honestly, against a very popular, well-funded and well known major party candidate, a “gay liberal” like Haavisto barely stood a chance. Niinistö has been the runaway favourite since 2006 or so, and he has led in all/the vast majority of polls. He also entered the runoff with 37%, in a much better position than Haavisto whose core was only 19%. Niinistö probably had a wider appeal to traditional voters than the maverick liberal Haavisto did. While Niinistö is a liberal pro-European too, he has built up a base which far surpasses the narrow bases of his own party, and he likely has a more natural appeal to more culturally conservative KESK voters or older retired working-class SDP voters. In fact, one of his main strengths has been his wide base with older voters, a traditional core SDP electorate in Finland. With 63%, Niinistö trounces Haavisto by a crushing 26-point margin, by far the widest gap in any presidential runoff election in Finland (the previous record was set by Martti Ahtisaari in 1994 when he beat Elisabeth Rehn by 8 points in the runoff). Niinistö becomes the first president since 1956 to hail from KOK’s ranks, but he will be required to give up his party membership upon taking office. Furthermore, his relations with KOK Prime Minister and party leader Jyrki Katainen, who is much younger than Niinistö, have not been particularly warm.
Pekka Haavisto was badly defeated in the runoff, but for an “unusual” candidate starting out from such a narrow base in the first round, Haavisto’s performance is still rather remarkable. It is also, in the wider realm of things, something for the Greens to take pride in and perhaps a base for them in future elections. Even if we assume that Haavisto won the support of all those who had backed the left-wing candidate Lipponen and Arhinmäki in the first round and those who backed Swedish candidate Eva Biaudet (which would be a total of 33.6%), he still obviously won pretty significant support from those who had backed the eurosceptic candidates Paavo Väyrynen and Timo Soini in the first round. Given how Haavisto is basically presented to the world as an openly gay pro-European liberal, it is quite remarkable that he has been able to win at least some sort of support from those voters. In the end, Haavisto managed to close the gap from 74-26 before the first round to 63-37 on election day, but it was always an uphill fight for him.
It is important to extend our previous comments on turnout. At only 68.9%, turnout is the lowest in any presidential election and even lower than turnout in the last legislative election, a type of election which attracts slightly less voters than presidential ballots. Invalid votes, 0.7% of the total, were also quite high. Only 32% of voters actually turned out on election day, while another 36% voted by advance ballot – quite prevalent in Finland, especially in isolated rural areas. Haavisto won 41% on election day, against 34.5% in advance ballots, which reflects the lesser prevalence of advance voting in Haavisto’s core urban strongholds. Climatic conditions explain part of the low turnout – weather was horrible in Finland on election day – but a good part of it likely stems from a good number of conservative KESK or PS voters who opted to stay home rather than vote in a contest between two pro-European ‘liberals’. Turnout was lowest in Åland (56%) and Lapland (62%) – the latter of which voted heavily for KESK’s Paavo Väyrynen in the first round. Turnout is naturally lower in all presidential elections in self-governing Swedish-speaking Åland, where voters probably feel less connection with mainland Finnish politics.
Åland, incidentally, stands out on the map as the only county to give Haavisto a majority (he won 60%), after having voted for Swedish candidate Eva Biaudet in the first round. However, Swedish voters along the coast in Vaasa seem to have voted for Niinistö by pretty significant margins. Åland benefits from extensive autonomy, and it has always shown a preference for left-wing candidates who tend to be more supportive of its autonomous status. He also came very close in Helsinki, where he won 49.8% – and 54% of election day voters. He failed to break 40% in any other county in the mainland besides Keski-Suomi, where he won 42%, probably because of his strong result (47%) in the big university town of Jyväskylä. Otherwise, Haavisto seems to have won mediocre results in working-class or industrial towns which usually vote SDP.