Just after 8pm on Sunday night, the social media accounts of liberal-leaning Finns lit up with the same phrase – “what a relief”. The results from the first-round presidential election showed that the far right candidate, whose support had rocketed in recent polls, had failed to make it into the second-round runoff vote.
Instead, two moderates made it into the second round, which takes place on February 11. These were Alexander Stubb, the ex-PM and banker, and Pekka Haavisto, the former foreign minister and UN envoy.
The hard right candidate was Jussi Halla-aho, the speaker in the Finnish parliament. His nationalist Finns Party is anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic, and he has been convicted of hate speech for anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic blogposts.
He had worried me and my colleagues at Yle, Finland’s public broadcaster, with demands that its funding should be “cut with a rather harsh hand” because it spreads “left wing propaganda”. He offered no evidence of this.
In any case, the broadcaster’s funding is not among the powers of the Finnish presidency, though it is a more influential post than in most European countries. Its powers have been pruned back since the days of Urho Kekkonen, Finland’s longest-serving president, whose autocratic quarter-century regime ended in 1982. The head of state’s main task is security policy and foreign policy. EU affairs are overseen by the prime minister and cabinet.
Kekkonen stayed in power because he was a master of the Finnish president’s most important job: keeping Moscow at bay while stealthily building ties with Washington and the west. He managed to do this by hunting, drinking beer and taking super-hot saunas with Nikita Khruschev, while also heading for meetings at the White House.
Finland’s current president, Sauli Niinistö, too, has earned broad support for maintaining dialogue with Moscow while firmly defending Finnish interests. But he raised eyebrows by talking to Vladimir Putin even after the invasion of Crimea, even inviting the Russian to his summer residence.
After a flurry of calls urging Putin not to invade Ukraine, that dialogue ended in May 2022. Niinistö has overseen Finland’s application to join Nato in response to the invasion, and last autumn Finland closed its border with Russia after accusing Moscow of sending asylum seekers towards the border.
Whether Haavisto or Stubb wins the presidency, we know for sure that Finland’s next president will be a middle-of-the-road, climate-conscious Europhile with deep international experience and a tough stance on Moscow.
Stubb represents the liberal side of the National Coalition Party (NCP) currently led by the prime minister, Petteri Orpo, which is broadly conservative, pro-business and has a big campaign chest. With a doctorate from the London School of Economics, he has been an MEP, prime minister for under a year and a vice president of the European Investment Bank.
Haavisto was Europe’s first Green cabinet minister and Finland’s first openly gay politician. He held various UN posts and served as foreign minister until last year, while also losing two presidential bids to Niinistö. He is now running as an independent with support from actors, rock stars, academics and minority groups.
Niinistö has enjoyed North Korean-style popularity figures during his 12-year presidency, gaining appeal across the political spectrum as his original conservatism expanded to include eloquent calls for climate action and gender equality. In this, many saw the influence of his younger wife, a progressive-minded literary figure.
Stubb’s 27.2% share of the vote was just as the polls predicted, but Haavisto’s 25.8% was considerably better. His rise came at the expense of the two left-leaning female candidates, European Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen (SDP) and Left Alliance leader Li Andersson. Many of their supporters apparently voted tactically to fend off a last-minute rise in support for Halla-aho.
But with no significant policy differences between Haavisto and Stubb, what will decide the second-round vote? Halla-aho’s nativist supporters are unlikely to vote for either of these liberal internationalists. Supporters of the fourth-place candidate, ex-European Commissioner Olli Rehn, may vote for Stubb, while the remaining left-leaning voters will back Haavisto.
With the president also expected to have a strong sense of Finnish “values”, much of the vote will come down to personality, and also to a sensitive cultural question: is Finland ready for a gay, Green head of state?