Finland’s incumbent president, Sauli Niinistö, was elected for a second term at the end of January. Niinistö received 62.6% of the vote and became the first president ever to win an election in the first round of the popular vote, a system that has been in place since 1994. During the cold war, the Finnish political system was semi-presidential, but parliamentarianism has gained ground since the 1980s. Nowadays the president conducts foreign policy together with the government.
Niinistö has spent his political career as a leading figure of the centre-right National Coalition party (NCP), but in this year’s presidential election he was able to also draw support from those who do not usually vote for the party. In fact, most supporters of the Social Democrats and the liberal, agrarian Centre party backed Niinistö over their own parties’ candidates. In the presidential election of 2012, Niinistö faced a second round contest against Green League candidate, Pekka Haavisto, but this year Haavisto was not able to generate the level of momentum needed to take him into a run-off, receiving only 12.4% of the vote.
The question the left must now answer is, why did progressive and leftwing voters back Niinistö so overwhelmingly, alongside his traditional rightwing supporters? To answer this, we can look first to the president’s record in office. The majority of Finns consider Niinistö successful in conducting foreign policy and developing relations with Russia in recent years, so a vote for the incumbent represented stability and continuity. Second, we should turn to his campaign. Instead of running as just the NCP candidate, Niinistö ran as an independent (without competition from the NCP itself) and was able to build a popular movement for his re-election.
It is noteworthy that the question of Finland’s Nato membership did not become a deciding factor in the election. Nils Torvalds, candidate for the Swedish People’s party of Finland, was the only clear pro-Nato choice in the election, but he received just 1.5% of the vote. During the presidential campaign, Niinistö stated that under the current circumstances, Finland should not apply for Nato membership, and that the ‘people’s voice’ should be heard when deciding on the issue.
As for other candidates, the rightwing Finns party’s Laura Huhtasaari and veteran eurosceptic Paavo Väyrynen have good reasons to be happy with their results. Huhtasaari, often dubbed Finland’s Marine Le Pen or Sarah Palin, won 6.9% of the vote, becoming a household name in Finnish politics. The former Centre party maverick Paavo Väyrynen, who quit the party in 2016 to form his own Citizens’ party and ran for president as an independent, received more votes than the Centre party’s official candidate, former Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, who received 4.1% of the vote.
The election was a huge disappointment for the Social Democrats (SDP), as their candidate Tuula Haatainen received only 3.2% of the vote. Haatainen followed Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström’s lead in talking about feminist foreign policy, and also brought issues like climate change and global inequality to the debate but, over the course of the campaign, traditional definitions of foreign policy prevailed.
The SDP is currently polling at 19%, putting it in second place, and it is unlikely that the disappointing presidential result will harm the party’s chances in 2019 parliamentary vote. However, it is clear that the party has lost its position as the dominant voice on foreign policy, a role it has occupied from the early 1980s to the beginning of the 21st century.
Since the 1990s, Social Democrats have paid little attention to empowering a generation of young politicians and policy makers, a failure that is particularly obvious in the very visible field of foreign policy. After Niinistö’s landslide victory it should be clear to everyone that a new cohort of social democratic foreign policymakers must stand up and begin to formulate a new, progressive foreign policy vision, in order to dominate this debate once more.