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Finland - Presidential Election

The presidential election in Finland, a round up one week before the first round

The presidential election in Finland, a round up one week before the first round

09/01/2006 - D-7 - 1st round

Just one week before the first round of the presidential election on 15th January the competition is still very much an open one. Will the election be decisive and will Tarja Halonen, the "outgoing" president, undoubtedly the favourite - be elected in a first round re-election as forecast by the opinion polls for a long time now? Or on the contrary will there be a second ballot and in this case is she absolutely confident of winning in the face of the only candidate that the centre and the right bring before her in the second round? the polls, including that published on 3rd December in the daily helsingin sanomat, leave no room for doubt and show that a fraction (women, young, and town dwellers) of the "bourgeois" electorate (in the nordic sense of the term i.e. who do not declare themselves to be on the left and a fortiori on the extreme left) intend to vote, for various reasons, for Tarja Halonen.

Since 15th December – along with the end of year celebrations and holidays obliging – the campaign has gradually slipped into a type of lethargy with little communication on the part of the candidates. Activities only started again at the turn of the year.

Hence the situation is – at least in theory - not as clear as it appeared to be a month ago.

Elements of uncertainty

Questions are being raised about the participation rates recorded on the evening of 15th January and above all about the distribution of the vote depending on the citizens' political preferences. there is a danger that a significant number of Tarja Halonen supporters will not bother to vote, depending heavily on the announced victory of their candidate, whilst the supporters of Mssrs Niinistö, Vanhanen, Kallis and Lax will be all the more motivated.

A second uncertainty: although Tarja Halonen was sworn in on 21st October by the left alliance after the proposal made by its president ms siimes, a fervent admirer of the latter, it is not impossible that the more "sectarian" members of this relatively heterogeneous party ranked on the extreme left of the political ladder (former communists, feminists, pacifists, some leftwingers etc...) will fall into the abstention believing the "outgoing president" too consensual and too distant from the own ideals, that are still tinged with left over hues of a revolutionary faith.

The third uncertainty: although since the spring of 2005 the social-democrat candidate has enjoyed the support of the sak, the biggest workers' union, generally absent from this type of battle, and who are weather-worn union members, skilled in the unconditional fight of the classes, might refuse to vote.

A fourth uncertainty involves the position of the green electorate. On 23rd April they unanimously put forward mep Heidi Hautala as their candidate. this is intended to be a "token candidature". Heidi Hautala, a supporter of the reduction of the powers of the head of state – reduced to a moral and symbolic authority – feels "freer" than Tarja Halonen to raise certain sensitive issues: human rights in russia, the damage caused by globalisation, the deterioration of civic notions in Finland, and the increase in exclusion and violence. She would like to embody the left's "moral conscience". Surveys undertaken in the second half of 2005 showed that a part of her "ecologist supporters" preferred Tarja Halonen to her in the first round, in the name of a "useful vote" and because Tarja Halonen is a staunch defender of women's rights – there are many women in the green party. Recently Heidi Hautala seems to have recovered slightly in popularity.

But the main element of doubt is obviously linked to the percentage of votes that Tarja Halonen will manage to win on 15th January from her competitors in the centre and on the right thanks to the fact that she is leaving office for the first time and also thanks to her strong personality. If, contrary to all forecasts, she does not win more than the absolute majority of the votes cast it will not just be a total surprise but also a danger for her during the second round, even though most of the Heidi Hautala votes would probably turn in her favour. A turn around such as this supposes however that the electorate of mssrs. Kallis, Lax, Soini and Arto Lahti – an independent personality, a well liked university professor, who won the necessary 20,000 "signatures" and includes in his programme Finland's accession to NATO (a point he shares in common with h. lax) and the recovery of the carelian territories annexed by russia sixty years ago – mostly declare that they are in favour of Tarja Halonen's challenger. Nearly no-one has forecast this hypothesis though.

The ambiguities of the electoral campaign

During the last few weeks of 2005 two themes arose during the campaign: that of the foreign policy – since the president's constitutional powers reside mainly in this area – with as a leitmotif the issue of nato; the other theme focuses on the limits of the powers of the head of state, when Finland takes part in peacekeeping operations decided upon by the european union.

Hence the imbroglio over the presidential powers when the government submitted a draft law to parliament in the last weeks of November on the country's participation in the crisis management and peace keeping operations decided upon by the eu. This project stipulated, in line incidentally with Tarja Halonen's wishes which were shared by the prime minister, that the engagement of troops would be a matter, in the last instance, for the head of state as chief of staff of the armed forces. Most of the law committee with its divisions within each party deemed this project to be unconstitutional since it was an issue linked to "european policy", and hence the competence lay with the government and not with the president. Mr Vanhanen then withdrew the government text on 28th November and hurriedly submitted a draft law that is to be voted on by both successive assemblies – that will require two years – giving or confirming the president with the authority to engage in all circumstances the armed forces. Since decisions have to be taken on a european level (participation in european multinational "battle groups") at the start of 2007, i.e. Before the election of a new assembly the prime minister will "find" a transitory solution and the affair will be settled.

In terms of foreign policy debates have not result in much. apart from mssrs lax and lahti who declare themselves quite clearly in favour of joining nato, few original ideas have emerged. Ms Hautala is pleading for a reduction in the competence of the head of state and has found herself accusing Tarja Halonen of being excessively prudent on the issue of human rights in russia and on chechnya (which Mr Kallis also did). Mr Vanhanen has been quite often obliged to agree with Ms Halonen. However he is sad about some decisions taken over the past few years ago on the timing to abandon completely anti-personnel mines – this "restriction" was shared by all the centre and rightwing candidates. It was Mr Niinistö who showed the most courage in terms of foreign policy. He challenged Matti Vanhanen on the value and credibility of the mutual commitments made in the draft european constitutional treaty, commitments that no-one seems to question in the wake of the french and dutch "no"; but the debate was cut short. Finally he put forward a new concept. During a televised debate on 21st December and in various declarations afterwards he suggested that the defence of european countries should handed over to a "more european nato", with the union's member countries relying on NATO in terms of their security and with the eu signing "ad hoc" agreements with it. The proposal did not meet with much enthusiasm and some even saw in this a subterfuge to ensure the support of the most "atlanticist" amongst the conservative electorate

In terms of domestic and european policy, the candidates, with the exception of Ms Hautala who is in favour of a decrease in the prerogatives of the head of states – seem to be happy with the present situation. Surveys indicate that most of the finnish believe the same but say that the president should not withdraw completely from this area.

Tarja Halonen's strength.

After having mentioned "negative" hypotheses that Ms Halonen might have to face, it has to be admitted that the outgoing president has every chance of winning if not in the first round when if we examine the surveys we must take in account a margin of error, she will do so at least on 29th January.

It is unthinkable that sooner or later she will not attract voters, who in the general elections, would vote for the centre and conservative parties and other "bourgeois" movements. In a survey undertaken between 27th and 29th December she was due to win 54% of the vote in the first round including 45% amongst men, but 63% amongst women. It also emerged that 17% of the "conservatives" would abandon s. Niinistö in favour of Tarja Halonen, and for their part 15% of the centrists preferred the latter to Matti Vanhanen.

Apart from her prestige as a president who has undertaken her term in office successfully and faultlessly, factors that in 2000 enabled her to rally a majority greater than the traditional "leftwing" electorate (sdp and vas, together, lying at around 35 %), in the first round (slightly over 40% of the vote) will certainly play in her favour to an even greater extent this time round.

Hence with much "finesse" and conviction Tarja Halonen has spoken in terms of domestic policy on her favourite, unifying themes: the upkeep of the welfare state, with the accent on education, training and research (the country's best advantages in the face of globalisation), the condemnation of intolerance, the defence of the rights of the less fortunate and cultural diversity.

In the domain of foreign policy Tarja Halonen has played a significant role without encroaching on the government's competences. She has continued her policy of travel abroad. She has attended some european councils – but not all - with the prime minister, who presented in detail and defended Finland's position on all the subjects being debated. But it was only with regard to security and defence that she was determined to assert her presence, for example on the problem of "crisis management" established by the european union and on the participation by Finland in peacekeeping operations as well as on the need for a un mandate for the launch of such operations, although on this point she did finally agree to a compromise.

As in the past she believes above all that the policy of not belonging to a military alliance is still appropriate and that nothing, in the present circumstances, justifies joining nato, but we should perceive "flexibility" in what she says: in the case of an emergency the NATO option is still open since NATO is no longer what it was during the cold war and is led to multiply its links with the european union. Statements like this bring her closer to those made by foreign minister e. Tuomioja and to a lesser degree to the prime minister, Matti Vanhanen. All of this will increasingly play in her favour.

In 2004-2005 certain conservative circles and the management have been highly critical about the head of state, when for example she said that she was in favour of an international debate on the principle of individual taxation, in the ilk of the tobin tax, to increase development funding. The same applied when she said that the president should have the last say in terms of the country's participation in the european battle groups: a number of conservatives and experts believe that these "groups" that inspire prudence if not suspicion on the part of Ms Halonen, belong to the european defence policy and are as all things related to the eu the responsibility of the government, and primarily the prime minister. Tarja Halonen's long term attachment to the un mandate for the launch of management crisis operations was the also the source of misunderstanding and great reticence mainly in the political field before the "solution of a compromise" finally emerged. On these various topics the president, a woman of conviction, has been able to adapt her attitude, without denying what she believes, to enable a greater consensus, whilst her two main adversaries, especially Mr Vanhanen has given the opposite image of "indecision".

These various considerations have certainly contributed in strengthening the image of "smiling strength with an ear open to public opinion" that Ms Halonen has maintained to date and that will enable her to be elected on 15th January. For his part Sauli Niinistö, who for a long time steered clear of the political arena, has made brave and sometimes skilful efforts, even though they might appear to be "sophisticated" in the eyes of many, for example with regard to the defence policy, in order to snatch, second place in the sprint for the post. All of this will be decided on the night spanning 15th-16th January after the first round of the election.
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
Other stages
2nd roundD-7