23/01/2006 - D-7 - 2nd round
Just a few days before the second round on 29th January when Ms Tarja Halonen, the outgoing president and candidate of the Social Democrat Party and the Left Alliance (VAS) will face Mr Sauli Niinistö, the Conservative Party candidate, the situation is far from clear. All analysts forecast – with the support of the polls – Ms Halonen's re-election but increasingly they see a narrow victory which might even be called "a snatched" one on her part given the rise in popularity of Sauli Niinistö. Several factors are indeed fogging the situation.
THE POSITIONS ADOPTED BY POLITICAL LEADERS
With the exception of Ms Hautala (Greens) who has not said anything to date (however some leaders of her group and her president Ms Tarja Cronberg, have given their support to Ms Halonen, mainly because of her programme on security and defence and her stance on NATO), the competitors eliminated during the first round including the "independent" Arto Lahti, have practically all provided their support to the Conservative candidate.
The main centre and rightwing personalities have reacted in a similar manner particularly within the "Centre Party" where Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen's (also head of the party) position, in favour of Sauli Niinistö, was approved by the party's leading authorities. Between the Centre and the Conservatives the principle of an "entente" in this election was apparently agreed upon a few months ago.
That the Centre Party has been associated with the Social Democrats within the same government coalition since 2003 has led no-one in the centrist camp to reject such an alliance, nor did the investiture of Tarja Halonen by the VAS –leftwing opposition – create a problem of conscience for the President, likewise for nearly all of the Finnish Left for that matter.
Furthermore some liberal leaders have tried to simplify the vote on 29th January next. They are reducing the choice down to that between an "archaic" Left, that favours State intervention in various domains of economic and social life and which does not "deal" out equally and an inspirational "liberal" group, that is more respectful of individual initiative and companies, of the dynamism of a market economy, the only ones in their eyes able to provide new impetus to Finnish growth and adapt the country in the best possible manner to the new challenges of globalisation. To put matters a little less finely this duel looks like a traditional "Left/Right" confrontation.
A LIVELY ELECTORAL CAMPAIGN BUT WEIGHED DOWN BY AMBIGUITY AND UNCERTAINTY
The electoral campaign itself has encouraged ambiguity. The two televised debates on 18th and 19th January witnessed agreement by both candidates on one point only: their attachment to values and interests of a rural world. The latter voted mostly in favour of Matti Vanhanen on 15th January. But the Prime Minister in office and Centre Party president was undoubtedly impeded in his campaign by his function, and did not win all the votes "rural" votes possible that are traditionally won by his party. Some certainly held him responsible for the sacrifices made or to come by Finnish farmers within the context of the Common Agricultural Policy in the wake of the EU's enlargement and for the concern, more or less founded, surrounding the European Council in December 2005.
Obviously internal politics – which since 2000 have no longer been the domain of the Head of State - held little sway in the competitors' battle. Tarja Halonen who is against the Conservatives' "neo-liberal" recipes recalled her preference for economic growth with the results justly distributed and that did not go hand in hand with an increasing gap in inequality. Sauli Niinistö believes that this gap is inevitable in periods of high growth and "rebirth" but the phenomenon is but transitory. With renewed dynamism a clear rise in incomes ceases and in his eyes the privilege of a minority spreads to all households.
It was therefore in the field of security and external relations policies that the confrontation was most lively. The Conservative candidate took up an offensive stance and blamed the President for the country's "lack of greater visibility" within the European Union. He questioned the lack of clarity of the objectives adopted by Helsinki for the Finnish Presidency of the Union in the second half of 2006, and the lack of national initiative – an ongoing situation for a number of years now – within the European organs that contrast greatly with the dynamism of a previous period. More generally he drew a parallel between the mostly positive results on the part of Tarja Halonen's predecessor, Martti Ahtisaari, and those of the present Head of State to the detriment of the latter. He insisted on the lack of real substance in the policy vis-à-vis Russia. He also attacked the "silence" that dominated relations with Washington.
Tarja Halonen believed these accusations were unfounded and remarked that with regard to Europe and in the area of government competence the present Prime Minister Vanhanen had not demonstrated any creativity nor any drive comparable with that of his Social Democrat predecessor Paavo Lipponen.
In the area of defence and security Tarja Halonen tried to dismantle the contradictions and ambiguities of her rival's programme. Whilst she referred to the White Paper adopted by Parliament in 2004 and by it alone, she insinuated that Sauli Niinistö – who put forward the concept of a "more European NATO" - was hiding his intention to take Finland towards membership of the Atlantic Alliance. She also accused him of minimising the solidarity which EU countries would show with regard to Helsinki if the country was threatened or attacked, evidence of which was clear in the draft Constitutional Treaty.
In the face of these "counter-attacks", Sauli Niinistö insisted on playing as subtle a game as possible. He did not say he was in favour of Finland joining NATO in the present circumstances. In any case "the question would not be decided upon by the President but would be the subject of a referendum." But he deplored the lack of any guarantee of security which Finland suffers from drawing a parallel with its tragic isolation in 1939-1940. In the knowledge that his party has a good number of "membership" supporters he presented himself as a "free" man able to contribute to an in depth and unbiased reflection on the most adequate possibilities, given the circumstances, to ensure the country vital security and effective defence.
At the same time Tarja Halonen – and with reference to the White Paper –believes that belonging to the Atlantic Alliance was not excluded forever and by principle. But she did not think that Finland was threatened by "a traditional war" at present. In the modern world "threats" were often more sophisticated and required the use of military and civil procedures as set down by the European Union.
POLLS THAT ARE DIFFICULT TO INTERPRET
Polls undertaken after the first round – although providing the outgoing President with a limited advantage – are still difficult to interpret. We simply deduce from this that Tarja Halonen will not achieve, in comparison with her 2000 result – the spectacular "great leap forwards" that had long time been forecast.
According to a survey undertaken on 16th and 17th January for the daily Helsingin Sanomat, Ms Halonen is due to win 53 % of the vote and Mr Niinistö 47 %. 18 % of those interviewed did not want to say who they were going to vote for.
At the beginning of January 64% were still in favour of Ms Halonen and 36% Mr Niinistö in the second round.
80 % of the Centre Party supporters are due to vote for Mr. Niinistö and 20 % for Ms Halonen. 93 % of Social Democrats are due to vote for Ms Halonen, 7 % for Mr Niinistö. 93% of Conservatives are in favour of Mr Niinistö and 7 % for Mme Halonen. 97 % of the Left Alliance supporters are due to choose Ms Halonen and 3 % Mr.Niinistö. 85 % of the Green Alliance supporters are due to vote for Ms Halonen and 15 % for Mr.Niinistö. 63 % of those who did not vote in the first round are due to vote for Ms Halonen and 37% for Mr Niinistö.
76 % of those interviewed are sure of going to vote. The most sure are those who voted for Ms Halonen or Mr Niinistö in the first round. Mr Vanhanen's voters or those who voted for small party candidates are not as enthusiastic. Women are more certain of going to vote than men as well as voters living in and around the capital or in the province of Uusimaa.
According to another survey undertaken between 16th and 18th January for MTV3, Ms Halonen is due to win 55% of the vote and Mr Niinistö 45 %. 32 % of those interviewed did not know who they would vote for or did not care to say.
At the beginning of January this MTV3 believed 68% were in favour of Ms Halonen and 32% for Mr Niinistö in the second round.
On Sunday 22nd January survey results revealed that nearly 800,000 voters i.e. 20% of the total were still undecided or did not want to say who they had chosen. In addition to this it is dangerous to imagine what the supporters of the "populist" Timo Soimi will do after he won 3.4% of the vote on 15th January last and who has remained incredibly silent since then.
So play is still very much "open" for the election on 29th January.