Presidential Election 2012
Sauli Niinistö is one of Finland’s most popular politicians, arguably its most popular. Ever since his only narrow defeat against the incumbent president Tarja Halonen in the second round of the last presidential election, an election in which many predicted Halonen’s massive popularity would allow her to walk to victory already in the first round, Niinistö has been considered a dead-certain to win the post in 2012. And indeed, in the parliamentary election of 2007 Niinistö received the highest number of votes ever by a candidate and went on to be speaker of the last parliament.
Niinistö did not stand for re-election to parliament in this year’s election but, as expected, confirmed he would stand as a candidate for president a few weeks ago. Opinion polls show he continues to be massively popular. But, we should not take his victory for granted yet. The post of President of the Republic is not a job appointed by declaration. The people must vote. Indeed, as mentioned, Tarja Halonen was expected to be reelected easily in the 2006 election but had to fight a late surge by Niinistö. In 1994, Elisabeth Rehn was expected to win over Martti Ahtisaari with a relatively comfortable margin, but went on to lose by around 7 percentage points.
The former Social Democratic prime minister Paavo Lipponen has now announced that he wishes to be the SDP’s candidate in next year’s presidential poll. According to an opinion poll today, Niinistö would easily beat Lipponen in a run-off between the two: Niinistö would win 63% of the vote. But, it is early days. A lot can happen during the autumn and winter. Will the financial crisis get worse and cause people to shy away from the right? Will Niinistö come across as arrogant, almost expecting to become president without the need to win the people’s trust in the election. Lipponen is a formidable opponent. A true statesman and capable debater, although perhaps now rather old at 70 years old.
The Swedish vote in 2012
For Swedish-speakers, Lipponen is very much worth considering when choosing how to vote. Lipponen is an extremely strong supporter of Finland’s bilingualism. Indeed, he launched his bid for the SDP candidacy with a press conference that was very much bilingual in nature, something increasingly rare for Finnish-speaking politicians in Finland. Lipponen has on several occasions spoken out against the hardening attitude against Swedish in the media during the past few years. He has also acted as chairman for the Svenska Nu project, which aims to improve the status of Swedish as a school subject in Finnish-speaking schools. Lipponen’s Swedish is as near to perfect as it can be for a non-native speaker.
Lipponen’s candidacy would perhaps present a problem for the Swedish People’s Party (SFP). Many SFP voters would likely see Lipponen as a strong supporter for Swedish interests. Would it not be a good idea for SFP to back his election – a candidate with a chance of getting elected? On the other hand, SFP has many non-socialist supporters and, especially in the highly bilingual capital area, Niinistö’s popularity may be so strong as to cross the language divide. So, should SFP have its own candidate? And if so, whom? Well, as we’ve seen, if SFP selects the right person, it can do well. Elisabeth Rehn came close to taking the presidency in 1994. In an election campaign that is likely to be dominated by two men, party leader Stefan Wallin has said he would like SFP to select a woman. Eva Biaudet stands out as the obvious candidate. Biaudet is currently Finland’s minorities ombudsman. She has spoken out against the increasingly intolerant atmosphere in Finnish society towards minority groups, especially in the wake of the rise of the populist True Finns. She could prove to be a strong candidate appealing to liberal voters of both language groups. But, would more socially conservative SFP supporters in rural Österbotten really be prepared to back a liberal candidate from Helsingfors/Helsinki? And should SFP really be cannibalising votes for strongly pro-Swedish Lipponen? The party has a tough choice ahead of it – but is aiming to make it within the next two weeks.
Pictured, the Presidential palace by the market square in the capital. This is the president’s office and the place where official guests are usually received, although today the president no longer lives there.