January 30, 2018

The Outcome of the Finnish Presidential Elections: Don’t Fix It If It Ain’t Broke

Acting President of Finland, candidate for presidential election, Sauli Niinistö casting his vote in advance voting in Helsinki, Finland on January 18, 2018.
Acting President of Finland, candidate for presidential election, Sauli Niinistö casting his vote in advance voting in Helsinki, Finland on January 18, 2018.

The Finnish voters have spoken. In the presidential elections held on Sunday 28 January 2018, they gave the current President of the Republic, Mr. Sauli Niinistö, a landslide re-election victory of 62,7 per cent of the popular vote, and a resounding mandate to him for the next six years.

This exceptional performance left the two next best challengers, Mr. Pekka Haavisto (Green Party) and Ms. Laura Huhtasaari (Finns Party), far behind with just 12,4 per cent and 6,9 per cent of the popular vote, respectively.

Since Mr. Niinistö managed to garner more than half of the votes cast in the first round, this result obviated a second round of balloting. This is the first time in the Finnish presidential elections history that a second round will not be needed.

The duties of the President of Finland are enumerated in the Finnish Constitution. According to the new Constitution dating from the year 2000, the President of the Republic “leads Finland’s foreign policy in cooperation with the Government and decides on Finland’s relations to foreign governments and actions in international organizations or negotiations.”

There is some wiggle room for interpreting what the phrase “in cooperation with the Government” actually means, but, at the very least, the wording allows a certain amount of flexibility in cooperation between the President and the Government in the foreign and security policy arena. As a result, those who would wish to see a strong President, readily hold a short pause before pronouncing the words “in cooperation with the Government”.

According to the Constitution, the President of Finland is also Supreme Commander of the Finnish Armed Forces.

As noted, the 2018 elections gave President Niinistö a historically strong mandate in the realm of foreign policy. Will he use these wide powers in the next six years for bold new openings? For example, will he take steps toward a Finnish membership in NATO, which was a much-discussed subject in the presidential debates?

Most observers would not bet on it. While NATO membership is popular among defense and security professionals in Finland, there is no public pressure for the President or the Government to move on the membership issue. To witness, in the pre-election debates just one of the eight presidential candidates declared himself a supporter of Finnish NATO membership. Furthermore, he was the candidate from a small Swedish People’s Party, and in the elections he gained just a meager 1,5 per cent of the total vote.

While that result does not reflect the actual popular support for NATO membership in Finland – a poll taken in fall 2017 gave a 22 per cent support for NATO membership – it is clear that the Finnish public does not at this time have either the political will or the desire to join NATO, not at least in the foreseeable future: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Furthermore, in an opinion poll published in late 2017 more than 70 per cent of the Finns considered foreign and security policy issues well handled. No wonder, then, that in the beginning of his campaign, Mr. Niinistö enjoyed an unprecedented public support of 82 percent to win the election and gain another six-year term.

His actual support in the elections is in any case extremely high in a country that boasts nine parties in Parliament. If one would not know how well-rooted democracy historically is in Finland, Mr. Niinistö’s winning figure, 62,7 per cent, might perhaps look suspect and better suited for a Central Asian autocracy.

As to the membership in NATO, in one of the presidential debates, when pressured, Mr. Niinistö declared that he does not see any reason under the current circumstances for Finland to join NATO. When pressed by the interviewer he said he could foresee two situations which might make him reconsider his current stand: one, if Sweden would join NATO, or, two, if Russia would regard the European Union as an enemy, the way it does NATO. Even under those circumstances, he would just reconsider his opinion, not necessarily change it.

Mr. Niinistö is also on record, with scores of other Finnish politicians (and even some foreign policy professionals), stating that “we will join the Alliance if things get serious”. But those who make this point conveniently forget that it might then be too late. One should not be surprised if at such a moment the members of the Alliance might want to shut the NATO doors and just take care of the members’ security needs – just because the going is getting serious.

To sum up, it now seems certain that Finland will not be taking steps toward NATO membership any time soon. However, one might expect policy initiatives from Helsinki in such areas as the EU security and defense policy, climate change, the Arctic issues, and even on such controversial issues like Crimea or Ukraine. At least, President Niinistö has all the public support he needs for such initiatives.