Category Archives: Finland

“Can I have your signature?” – Comparing requirements for registering presidential candidates in Europe

Every so often, I receive a message from colleagues asking whether I know of a comparative overview on a particular aspect of presidential politics. I have previously written blog posts with such overviews on presidential term length and possibilities of re-election, salaries of West European and Central East European presidents, and the question of who acts as head of state when presidents are incapacitated or resign. Three weeks ago, I received another enquiry asking about the number of signatures required to register as a presidential candidate in popular presidential election – prompted by the seemingly high number of 200,000 signatures in Romania (notably, this threshold also applies to European elections, a fact highlighted by the extra-parliamentary “Democracy and Solidarity Party – DEMOS” earlier this year).

Electoral laws often specify various requirements for candidates, such as age, no criminal record, residency etc, but these all relate to the candidacy of a person as such, not its registration with authorities. To register one’s candidacy for president, collecting a certain number of supporting signatures arguably presents the most common requirement (closely followed by making a – often non-refundable – deposit to the Electoral Commission). Collecting signatures helps to prove that a candidate is a serious contender and can attract at least a minimum of support. In this post, I hence provide an overview and assessment of the signature requirements for presidential candidates in Europe and beyond.

The Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the Venice Commission (an advisory body to the Council of Europe on matters of Constitutional Law) states that “The law should not require collection of the signatures of more than 1% of voters in the constituency concerned” (Part I, Chapter 1.3, point ii) – hence, for popular presidential elections signatures of no more than 1% of all registered voters in the whole country should be required for registration. Overall, all but three European nations adhere to this recommendation, albeit still showing considerable variation.

On average, a little less than half a percent of registered voters (0.454%) is required to register a candidacy as presidential candidate in European semipresidential and presidential republics. Requirements range from 0.016% (i.e. 100) of registered voters in Cyprus to 1.5% in Montenegro, yet the median of 0.396% (BiH Republika Srbska) illustrates that most countries can be found towards the bottom of the range. Three countries stand out because they do not foresee any kind of public signature collection: Ukraine abolished any kind of signature requirement in 2009 (it had previously been 500,000 in 2004 and 1m in 1999).  In contrast, presidential hopefuls in France and Ireland need to collect support from public officials – 500 signatures of elected public officials in France, and nomination by 20 members of parliament or four county or city councils in Ireland. Four other countries also have rules for the nomination of candidates by legislators – such rules generally benefit established parties.

Romania indeed belongs to countries with the highest signature requirements in European comparison, yet it is still surpassed by Montenegro. While Romania only exceeds the Council of Europe recommendation by 0.1% (ca. 17,300 signatures), this margin would already be enough to register a candidate in Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, or Portugal! The Montenegrin electoral law actually specifies that signatures equal to 1.5% of registered need to be collected in order to register a candidate for the presidency (and has subsequently been the subject of repeated criticism by the Venice Commission and the OSCE).

What do these numbers mean for parties, candidates and competition in popular presidential elections? Generally, higher signature requirements increase entry costs for political newcomers and can be a serious impediment to democratic competition. Candidates nominated by political parties can rely on established organisations for the collection of signature (often under a tight deadline) as well as for the financing of such an exercise – even in smaller countries with lower requirements, a small army of volunteers is needed. Given that signatures can later be ruled invalid for various reasons, candidates actually need to collect more signatures than the official number to prepared for this eventuality. Regulations that allow (or restrict) the nomination of candidates by a handful of members of parliament (e.g. in the Czech Republic, Ireland, or Slovakia), also benefit established parties and provide obstacles to independents and newcomers. Nevertheless, a greater number of candidates in direct presidential elections does not automatically equal a better or more democratic process. In the prevalent two-round run-off systems (only Ireland used preference voting and Iceland a plurality run-off), a highly fragmented candidate field in the first round can easily lead to the elimination of a Pareto-winner as well as voter dissatisfaction if a large proportion of voters do not see their preferred candidate advance to the second round.

When it comes to signatures for registering a presidential candidate, there is no objective “magic number”; yet, when looking at the various requirements across Europe, it would likely be around 0.4% of registered voters.

Semi-Presidential Policy-Making in Europe: Executive Coordination and Political Leadership

 

This post was co-authored by Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius.

Despite almost three decades of empirical research on semi-presidentialism, we still know very little about the actual functioning of day-to-day routines and coordination mechanisms between the president and her administration on the one hand, and the prime minister and her cabinet on the other. Our new book Semi-Presidential Policy-Making in Europe: Executive Coordination and Political Leadership, published in the Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics series, breaks thus new ground by exploring how intra-executive coordination works (and does not work) in three European countries with roughly similar constitutional frameworks – Finland, Lithuania, and Romania.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with select informants (primarily ministers and civil servants from the offices of the president and the prime minister with long-standing experience of intra-executive coordination), official documents, as well as secondary material such as politicians’ memoirs, the purpose of our book was to go beyond cohabitation and constitutional powers and to dig deeper into the relations between the two executives. Our basic premise was straightforward: the less there is formal, regular coordination between the two leaders, the more there is space for presidential activism. Formal coordination mechanisms in a sense tame or constrain presidents – and should overall contribute to smoother intra-executive relations.

When deciding on our case selection, we wanted to compare countries that have sufficiently similar constitutional regimes but display variation regarding the socio-economic context and the dynamics of party politics. The presidents of Finland, Lithuania, and Romania enjoy broadly comparable constitutional prerogatives, although the Finnish presidency is vested with somewhat weaker powers. However, the difference lies not so much in constitutional rules as in the socio-economic context. Finland is an old democracy known for its political stability and low level of corruption. The constitutional reform process that culminated in the new unified constitution of 2000 was an orderly, calm process based on broad party-political consensus. Lithuania and Romania, in turn, are much younger democracies that needed to rapidly adopt new constitutions in the heated circumstances of the early 1990s. Their party systems tend to be less stable, with political parties often vehicles for the personal ambitions of individual politicians. Both countries, particularly Romania, have also had serious problems with corruption. Not very surprisingly, Finns tend to trust their political institutions whereas Lithuanians and Romanians do not (at least no to the same extent).

Our main findings need to be understood in the context of these rather fundamental societal differences. In Finland the politicians and legal experts responsible for amending the constitution opted for formal coordination instruments that essentially force the president and the prime minister to cooperate regularly. The Finnish president chairs the Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy and meets both the prime minister and the foreign minister on an almost weekly basis. But perhaps even more important is the legacy of Urho Kekkonen, who ruled the land with an iron hand for quarter of a century from 1956 to 1981. There was a shared understanding among the political elites that the balance of power had shifted too far in favour of the president. There was thus the political will to significantly reduce the powers of the president, but also a recognition of the need to bind the president to governmental decision-making. In Finland it is still perceived inappropriate for the president to become involved in matters falling under the jurisdiction of the cabinet and the Eduskunta. This applies particularly to government formation, as one of the key factors contributing to the position of Kekkonen was his ability to basically dominate government formation processes, cherry-picking prime ministers and vetoing ministerial candidates and even the inclusion of whole parties in cabinets. Finnish presidents do not criticize the prime minister and the cabinet publicly. Disagreements do occur, but they are mainly handled behind the scenes without public conflicts.

In Lithuania and Romania, on the other hand, it is certainly both legitimate and appropriate for the president to interfere in matters that constitutionally belong to the competence of the government. The transition to democracy in the early 1990s provided a critical juncture in terms of institutional design. Both countries opted for a stronger presidency than in Finland and, more importantly, decided against specific rules about intra-executive coordination mechanisms. Neither country utilizes ministerial committees that would enable regular exchange between the president and the government. Even though the president meets the prime minister often, the frequency of such bilateral meetings is very much dependent on individual office-holders. Both countries also offer evidence of communication breakdowns, with the president or the prime minister simply refusing to talk to one another. Crucially, it is the president that holds the initiative regarding interaction with the prime minister or the government. The level and forms of intra-executive coordination are thus very much determined by the president. Lithuanian and Romanian presidents have adopted even quite confrontational stances, unleashing harsh attacks on the government.

An interesting dimension is party politics, or the role of political parties in facilitating or hindering presidential influence. In all three countries the president as the head of state is not formally a member of any party, but here we see notable variation. Romanian presidents are quite openly involved in the work of their parties: the presidents have attended various party congresses, maintain in general close ties with their parties, and even campaigned in favour of their parties in parliamentary elections. In Lithuania such party ties are much weaker, although we must remember that two of the three presidents, Adamkus and Grybauskaitė, were elected into office as independent candidates. In Finland the non-involvement of presidents in party politics is strictly observed. Future research should examine more closely how presidents use their parties or friendly legislative majorities to achieve policy goals. The Lithuanian and Romanian examples illustrate how ‘outsider’ presidents, such as Constantinescu and Iohannis, have found it much more difficult to shape politics than incumbents that have long experience from party politics.      

Our analysis indicates the buffet table of strategies available for presidents to wield influence. Apart from using their constitutional prerogatives, presidents make active use of informal channels: they meet with individual politicians, including party leaders, hold important public speeches that typically enjoy wide media coverage, and establish close links with various interest groups and citizens’ associations. Again such activities are not regulated by any laws. Previous research has very much focused on visible actions – presidential vetoes or the role of the president in forming and dissolving cabinets. These are clearly important dimensions that deserve to be examined, but influential presidents may not need to veto bills or reject governments. Given favourable circumstances, not least a friendly prime minister and a legislative majority, presidents can achieve a lot without leaving any public trace of her actions. This is why we deliberately relied heavily on interviews with people in key positions. If we want to understand how individual presidents behave, one simply must talk to such informants and identify how presidents seek to influence politics.  

An important and so far under-researched theme is the role of presidential staff. In Finland the size of the presidential office is very small, and hence the Finnish president is strongly dependent on preparatory work carried out by the government. In Lithuania and particularly in Romania the presidential palaces have generous staff levels, meaning that the presidents have, if required, the capacity to look into policy questions in much more detail and to prepare various political documents. A striking and perhaps also a surprising finding concerns the portfolios that the staff focus on. Most of the staff working for the Lithuanian and Romanian presidents deal with policy areas that fall under the competence of the government – economic policy, education, social and health affairs, culture etc. Importantly, these persons follow developments in the ministries and the legislature, maintain active links with interest groups and other shareholders, and in general try to generate support for the positions and initiatives of the president. Future research on political leadership should therefore pay close attention to advisors and other staff, including of course also in the office of the prime minister.

Intra-executive coordination is most institutionalized and regular in foreign and security policy. Finland uses a specific ministerial committee in foreign and security policy that meets around twice a month and brings together the president, the prime minister and other cabinet members. Lithuania and Romania utilize national security councils that meet less often but are convened to discuss various topical matters related to security policy. While there have been some public disputes or disagreements between the president and the government in Finland, Lithuania, and Romania, normally the goal of speaking with one voice in foreign and security policy is achieved. There is routine, day-to-day administrative interaction between the presidential office and the foreign ministry, and in all three countries the president meets the foreign minister on a regular basis.

The findings are thus in line with our theoretical expectations. The more there is formal and regular coordination, the less space for presidential activism – and vice versa. And in line with institutional theory, our book illustrates path dependency and the stickiness of initially adopted courses of action. We also provide further evidence of some of the negative features often associated with presidents and semi-presidential regimes. Most of the intra-executive conflicts or tensions in Finland, Lithuania, and Romania result from actions of the president. At the same time we must underline the exploratory nature of our research. Our analysis covered only three countries, and thus the number of individual presidents in our data set was small. Various presidential activities – from public speeches, party links, to ties with various stakeholders – could be subjected to much closer examination and be linked to data on intra-executive conflicts or legislative vetoes. Finally, our research design and data should not be understood as criticism of more quantitatively oriented studies. However, an in-depth understanding of presidential behaviour and how the two executives work together is not possible without reaching ‘behind the scenes’ and talking to people with first-hand knowledge of intra-executive coordination.   

Finland: a left-leaning five-party government shares power with a conservative president

After the latest Eduskunta election in Finland, held on 14 April, it seemed almost self-evident that the new government would be formed around the Social Democrats and the National Coalition (conservatives). The Social Democrats had won the election by a narrow margin and would thus be leading the government formation talks. Yet Antti Rinne, the chair of the Social Democrats, managed to essentially surprise everyone by announcing that he would try to form a five-party government that includes the Social Democrats, the agrarian / liberal Centre Party (that had suffered a massive defeat in the elections), the Green League, the Left Alliance, and the Swedish People’s Party.

Rinne’s background is in the trade union movement, and it is probable that his experience of tough bargaining in that environment contributed to the relative ease of the government formation process, with President Sauli Niinistö appointing the new government on 6 June. The Rinne cabinet controls 117 out of the 200 Eduskunta seats, thus continuing the Finnish tradition of ideologically heterogeneous surplus majority coalitions. The two main opposition parties are the populist / nationalist the Finns Party and the National Coalition.

The programme of the Rinne cabinet is very long indeed, 214 pages, a record for Finnish governments. Critics have argued that the programme is despite its length frustratingly vague, with a something-for-everyone approach that leaves many points open. Another line of criticism concerns the economic optimism of Rinne: unlike the previous Centre-led right-wing coalition that had introduced budget cuts, the programme of the Rinne government is full of promises about public sector investments. Indeed, during its first weeks the government has already announced more money for things like rail infrastructure and education. Rinne has defended this line by commenting that many of the public sector investments will depend on the health of the economy: if economic growth slows down, the government will re-think its strategy.

The April elections resulted in an important victory for the political left: the combined seat share of the Social Democrats, the Greens (which achieved their best-ever result in Eduskunta elections with 11,5 % of the vote), and the Left Alliance rose from 61 seats in 2015 to 76 in 2019. Notably all three leftist parties are included in the Rinne government. This is surely appreciated in the trade unions, as their societal legitimacy and influence is strongly dependent on the inclusion of Social Democrats in the cabinet. The government programme also contains many elements that were found in the election manifestos of the three leftist parties: investments in job creation, education, social and health care, and in preventing societal exclusion, and at least ambitious plans for tackling climate change.

Whether those ambitious plans will translate into concrete action remains to be seen. The same applies to the future of social and health services and social security. It was in the end the failure of the social and health reform package that brought down the Sipilä cabinet a month before the Eduskunta elections, and now the Rinne cabinet has taken a more cautious approach by not starting the whole project completely from scratch. Instead, it will utilize the preparatory work of previous governments and according to the government programme Finland will also get directly-elected regional councils, an important question for the Centre Party, but the timing of the first elections remains undecided. Overall, the Rinne government intends to re-introduce broad-based parliamentary committees to look into various issues.

In terms of EU and foreign policy, the government is definitely pro-EU but will most likely follow the line of previous cabinets in being lukewarm towards the deepening of economic integration, for example through creating an additional budget for the Eurozone or through changing the rules of the European Stability Mechanism. Finland will hold the EU presidency during the latter half of 2019, so Rinne will surely get a busy and demanding start to his premiership. The new foreign minister is Pekka Haavisto of the Green League who has long-standing experience from international organisations. It is unlikely that either Haavisto or Rinne will publicly challenge the highly popular President Niinistö who in recent years has strengthened his role in foreign and security policy (according to the Finnish constitution foreign policy is co-directed between the president and the government while EU policy is in the competence of the government). Yet this is the first time since 2012 that Finland will have divided government, with President Niinistö – elected in 2012 as the candidate of the National Coalition and in 2018 as an independent candidate but with strong backing from the conservatives – sharing power with the social democratic prime minister.

For outside observers the Rinne government may look like a strange beast, bringing together parties from the left and the right. Yet this is what Finns are used to: cabinets are typically oversized cross-bloc coalitions. While the media will no doubt keep a close eye on the government, an equally interesting question concerns the parliamentary opposition. Disappointment is quite widespread inside the National Coalition, as around two years ago it seemed likely that the party would win the 2019 elections. The party will hold a leadership election in the summer of 2020 and it is by no means certain that the current chair Petteri Orpo will emerge as the winner. The seating order in the Eduskunta was changed after the elections so that the Finns Party will sit next to the National Coalition at the right end of the chamber. Most National Coalition supporters want the party to keep a healthy distance to the Finns Party, but at least in economic issues the two parties have very similar positions. Given that the Rinne government will probably adopt liberal positions towards both climate change and immigration, the National Coalition will have to strike a delicate balance between pursuing liberal policies and joining forces with the Finns Party in attacking the cabinet.

Finland – modest but important gains for the political left in parliamentary elections

The Finnish parliamentary elections held last Sunday (14 April) received international media attention primarily on account of the anti-immigration and nationalist The Finns Party finishing second, winning just one MP less than the Social Democrats that emerged as the largest party for the first time in the 21st century. Overall, all three leftist parties – the Social Democrats, the Green League, and the Left Alliance – won more votes and seats than in the Eduskunta elections held four years earlier, while particularly the Centre Party suffered a major defeat.

Finland had been governed since the 2015 elections by a centre-right coalition that brought together the Centre, the National Coalition (conservatives), and the Finns Party. The top priority of the cabinet had been the reorganization of health and social services, which would have brought about both a larger role for the private sector in delivering such services (a key objective for the National Coalition) and the introduction of directly-elected regional councils (a key objective for the Centre that wins most of its vote in the rural provinces). The project had run into serious trouble in the Eduskunta, with also some backbench MPs of the governing parties voicing strong criticism and indicating that they might not support the bill. Finally, the project was buried on 8 March, with PM Juha Sipilä of the Centre Party immediately announcing the resignation of his government.

With just over a month to go before the Eduskunta elections, many speculated that Sipilä had resigned in order to focus on the campaign, especially as the Centre was doing so badly in the polls. Sipilä seemed concerned about the Centre losing its core supporters in the rural areas, and hence he defended strongly the increasing use of logging and ‘sustainable use of forest resources’. In fact, climate change and the need to address global warming became arguably the leading topic of the elections, with particularly the left-wing parties advocating bolder measures that were criticized by the political right, not least by the Finns Party. However, apart from climate change the campaign themes ranged from the state of economy and employment (with the governing parties defending their good track record) to immigration, equality, and social security. European integration and foreign and security policy did not feature at all in the debates. Surprisingly the failed social and health care reform package was also by and large missing from the debates.

The Finnish party system is very fragmented, with the largest party normally getting at most 20-25 % of the votes. This time the Social Democrats captured only 17,7 % of the votes (+1,2 % compared with the 2015 elections, the worst performance of the party after the Second World War) and 40 seats (+6 compared with the situation after the 2015 elections), the lowest-ever share won by the largest party in Eduskunta elections. While the polls had predicted a bigger victory for the Social Democrats, finishing first means a lot to the party and more broadly to the political left in Finland. The last time the Social Democrats won the elections was back in 1999, and hence Finland has not had a social democratic prime minister after the era of the ‘rainbow coalitions’ headed by Paavo Lipponen between 1995 and 2003. The inclusion of Social Democrats in the government is also crucial for the trade unions that received wide-spread criticism during the Sipilä government. Antti Rinne, the party leader and thus also the likely next prime minister, has a trade union background, and this no doubt strengthens the links between the new government and the corporatist actors. Rinne himself has been quite heavily criticized, and again there are question marks over his leadership as still between January and early April the support of the Social Democrats was according to polls around and even above 20 %.

The Green League recorded its best-ever performance, winning 11,5 % of the vote (+3,0 %) and 20 seats (+5). However, the celebrations were nonetheless quite muted, especially as the polls had predicted a larger vote share for the Greens and many party activists surely hoped that the party would achieve the next step of joining the group of large parties in Finnish politics. Pekka Haavisto, a senior party figure with long experience from both national politics and international organisations, had been appointed as the interim party chair in November when Touko Aalto was forced to resign as party chair due to health issues. Haavisto, who was also the Greens’ candidate in the 2012 and 2018 presidential elections, intends to step down in June when the Greens have their next party congress. The Greens are in many ways close allies with the Social Democrats, and would thus be a logical coalition partner in a Social Democratic-led cabinet. The Left Alliance also achieved an election victory, winning 8,2 % of the vote (+1,0 %) and 16 seats (+4). Hence the combined seat share of the left-wing parties increased from 61 seats after the 2015 elections to 76 seats (38 %).

International media coverage focused strongly on the Finns Party which finished second with 17,5 % of the vote (-0,2 %) and 39 seats (+1). When interpreting the results, we must pay close attention to the recent history of the party. The ‘new’ version of the Finns Party was established in summer 2017 when Jussi Halla-aho was elected as the party chair. Halla-aho, who has been convicted in court for hate speech, and the entire new party leadership focuses strongly on immigration issues and the new leadership also advocates more pro-market solutions than the ‘old’ Finns Party chaired by Timo Soini between 1997 and 2017. The support of Halla-aho’s party increased in the months leading to the elections, but the final result nevertheless took most observers by surprise. Halla-aho himself was the vote king of the elections, winning 30596 votes in the Helsinki constituency. Also many other leading anti-immigration figures, such as Laura Huhtasaari, Juho Eerola, and Ville Tavio performed strongly in their respective electoral districts.

The election was at the same time a catastrophe for the Blue Reform, the ‘losing side’ of the Finns Party’s 2017 party congress. The Blue Reform was essentially put together by the more populist or moderate senior party figures that also were cabinet ministers, and hence many felt that they were just protecting their own ministerial positions. The Blue Reform thus continued in the cabinet and in the elections tried to defend the achievements of the Sipilä government. It managed to win only 1,0 % of the vote and failed to achieve representation in the Eduskunta, meaning also that the ministers of the party (Soini was not seeking re-election), including the party chair Sampo Terho, were not re-elected.

The two main governing parties, the Centre and the National Coalition, did their best to defend the track record of the cabinet, particularly regarding employment rate. The National Coalition managed considerably better, finishing third with 17,0 % of the vote (-1,2 %) and 38 seats (+1). While party chair Petteri Orpo and the party faithful appeared jubilant, one could also sense disappointment as the National Coalition had won the 2017 municipal elections with 20,7 % of the vote and for a long time it had seemed that Orpo might become the next PM. The National Coalition and the Social Democrats have experience from governing together (1987-1991, 1995-2003, and 2011-2015), and the current prediction is that the new cabinet would be constructed around these two large parties.

The Centre Party in turn captured only 13,8 % of the vote (-7,3 %) and 31 seats (-18), its worst performance in elections held after the Second World War. This was essentially a repeat of the 2011 elections. Back then the Centre had held the position of the prime minister for eight years, and also now the burden of governing took its toll. The market-friendly policies of PM Sipilä clearly alienated parts of the party’s electorate, many of whom lean more towards cooperation with the Social Democrats. If the Centre is not part of the next government (as appears likely), Finland may remain without directly-elected regional councils. Sipilä announced his resignation as the party chair after the elections.

Of the smaller parties, the Swedish People’s Party received 4,5 % of the vote (-0,3 %) and held to its 10 seats (including the sole representative of the Åland Islands) while the Christian Democrats won 3,9 % of the vote (+0,4 %) and also retained its 5 seats. The final MP is Harry Harkimo, the leader of Liike Nyt (Movement Now) that very much ran an ‘anti-party’ campaign and advertised itself as a new way of making politics.

At this stage it appears most likely that the new coalition will be formed between the Social Democrats and the National Coalition, and that it will include also smaller parties such as the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party. While Halla-aho has indicated willingness to make compromises and to take part in government formation talks, it is more likely that the Finns Party will continue in the opposition. In terms of the overall direction of domestic or European and foreign policy, the election result will probably not result in any significant changes. The political left is stronger now than four years ago, and this is probably good news for those defending the welfare state and the role of the trade unions. However, concerns about the state of the economy, including reducing public debt, act as a constraint on the new Finnish government regardless of its party-political composition.

Turnout was 72,1 %, or 68,7 % when including enfranchised citizens living abroad. 94/200 (47 %) of the elected MPs are women.

Finland heading for another coalition between Social Democrats and the conservatives?

In Finland the elections to Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature, are scheduled for 14 April, with the European Parliament elections following in late May. Unfortunately this also means that European elections will definitely be ‘second-order elections’, with the political parties and the media investing their resources in Eduskunta elections and in the government formation talks that follow them.

With just over a month to go, it appears that the Eduskunta election campaigns will be dominated by a single topic – the reorganization of social and health services. It is essentially a deal between the two main coalition parties, Centre Party and the National Coalition, with the former getting directly-elected regional councils (the Centre wins most of its votes in the rural areas of the country) and the latter in turn ensuring a larger role for the private sector in delivering social and health services. However, the process with all its twists and turns has dragged on, and it is becoming increasingly clear that all the required legislation cannot be approved before the April elections. In fact, the whole package may fail, especially as there is stronger criticism from within the governing parties, with several of their MPs already indicating that they will vote against the laws in the Eduskunta. Recently there has also emerged a wave of scandals concerning nursing homes and other facilities operated by private companies: public authorities have intervened, reprimanding companies for inadequate staffing and overall poor treatment of the occupants, and even enforcing the closure of some of the facilities.

It is perfectly understandable that the project has produced heated debates within and between parties, not to mention in the society at large. Finns are used to a high level of social protection and to health services being delivered mainly by the public sector, with the welfare state regime enjoying strong support among the population. To be sure, municipal councils that are responsible for providing the services have increasingly been purchasing them from private companies, but as the above-mentioned scandals indicate, there are genuine concerns about the quality of social and health services. The government has been arguing that the new system would be cheaper, but economists are not convinced. Also the introduction of directly-elected regional councils would involve a significant transfer of decision-making authority from municipal councils upwards to the regional level, and hence many fear the erosion of local democracy.

Whatever the merits of the planned reform, the timing could not have been worse for the cabinet. The Finnish party system is very fragmented, with the largest party normally getting at most 20-25 % of the votes. The latest poll, conducted by the leading daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat from 14 January to 14 February, puts the Social Democrats in the first place with 20,8 % of the vote. If the SDP holds on to its lead, this will be the first time that the Social Democrats are the biggest party since the 1999 elections, and hence also the first time that Finland would have a centre-left prime minister since 2003. In the 2015 elections SDP captured only 16,5 % of the vote, its lowest share ever in Eduskunta elections. Social Democrats have criticized heavily the planned reorganization of social and health services, not least on account of the reform providing a bigger role for the private sector in delivering the services. However, for the most part SDP and the other opposition parties have basically been content to sit back and let the government make its own mistakes. But whether the Social Democrats manage to keep their pole position depends on the final weeks of the campaign and on how the party leader Antti Rinne performs in the main television debates. Rinne just returned from a two-month sick leave, and there is general agreement that his past appearances in such debates have left considerable room for improvement. Rinne has a trade union background, and SDP will no doubt also emphasize employment and other labour market issues in its campaign.

The National Coalition came second in the poll with 18,6 % of the vote. The party is seen as the ally of large private companies, and thus it is logical that leading party figures, including party chair Petteri Orpo, have tried to divert attention to other issues. The Sipilä government has by and large achieved its main goals regarding employment and competitiveness, and the National Coalition has warned about the potential economic consequences of a SDP-led cabinet. While the National Coalition and the Social Democrats are currently fighting hard for the position of the prime minister, the two parties have also considerable experience from governing together (1987-1991, 1995-2003, and 2011-2015).

The Centre Party is in serious trouble, with the Helsingin Sanomat poll predicting the party winning only 14,7 % of the vote. This would be major loss for the party – it emerged victorious in 2015 with 21,1 % of the vote – and in line with the setback experienced in the 2011 elections. Back then the Centre had held the position of the prime minister for eight years, and also now the burden of governing seems to take its toll. The market-friendly policies of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä have clearly alienated parts of the party’s electorate, many of whom lean more towards cooperation with the Social Democrats. Hence it is not surprising that over the past few weeks Sipilä has focused in his speeches on issues close to the heart of rural voters, not least on the question of forest harvesting where Sipilä has defended increased use of forest resources. If the Centre is not part of the next government, Finland may remain without directly-elected regional councils.

The third cabinet party is the Blue Reform, formed after the split inside the Finns Party in the summer of 2017. The party has found it difficult to establish an identity somewhere between the hard-line anti-immigration views of the Finns and the mainstream centre-right parties, and according to the Helsingin Sanomat poll its support was only 1 %. The support of the Finns Party has meanwhile been on the rise, with the recent poll giving it 11,4 % of the vote. Party chair and MEP Jussi Halla-aho is surely hoping for immigration and multiculturalism to become the main topic in both the Eduskunta and the European Parliament elections. Here the party may benefit from recent multiple abuse cases involving iimmigrants, with the victims including under-age girls. Halla-aho himself is seeking a return to the Eduskunta in the April elections.

Of the other opposition parties, the Green League appointed Pekka Haavisto, a popular and senior party figure with long experience from both national politics and international organisations, as its interim leader in November when Touko Aalto was forced to resign as party chair due to health issues. Haavisto, who was also the Greens’ candidate in the 2012 and 2018 presidential elections, intends to step down in June when the Greens have their next party congress. Under Haavisto the Greens have improved their ratings, with the Helsingin Sanomat poll indicating 13,6 % of the vote. This would mean a substantial victory for the Greens, as the 8,5 % achieved in the 2015 elections was their best-ever performance in Eduskunta elections. Climate change and education are the pet themes of the party, and such topics are likely to appeal to particularly urban, younger voters. The Left Alliance also has a popular party chair, the energetic Li Andersson. Under her leadership, the party’s election manifesto centres around equality, justice, and the need to prevent poverty. In the Helsingin Sanomat poll the party’s support was at 8,7 %. The Swedish People’s Party received 4,3 % and the Christian Democrats 4,0 % of the vote in the Helsingin Sanomat poll.

At this stage it appears most likely that the new coalition will be formed between the Social Democrats and the National Coalition, and that it will include also smaller parties such as the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party. The centre-left parties (Social Democrats, Left Alliance, and arguably also Greens) look set to perform much better than four years ago, and this is potentially also good news for the trade unions that have been the target of strong criticism during the reign of the Sipilä government. However, in terms of the overall direction of domestic or European and foreign policy, the elections will not produce any significant changes. This applies also to foreign policy leadership which constitutionally is shared between the president and the government. None of the prime ministerial candidates are known for their expertise or interest in foreign affairs questions, and hence the highly popular President Niinistö is likely to retain his strong position in Finland’s foreign and security policy.

Finland – Political parties prepare for late spring elections

Late spring 2019 looks set to become a busy and important period for Finnish political parties. The elections to Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature, are scheduled for 14 April, with the European Parliament elections following in late May. There is also still the chance that the first regional elections ever held in the country would take place on the same day as the European Parliament elections. However, for that to occur, the necessary legal reforms related to the reorganization of social and health services and the establishment of the new regional councils would have to be approved by the Eduskunta around six months prior to the election day. Hence the current prediction is that the regional elections will not take place in the spring.

The Finnish party system is very fragmented, with the largest party normally getting at most 20-25 % of the votes. The latest poll, conducted from 10 September to 2 October, puts the Social Democrats in the first place with 22,6 % of the vote. This would be the first time that SDP would be the biggest party since the 1999 elections, and hence also the first time that Finland would have a centre-left prime minister since 2003. The party chair, Antti Rinne, has obviously criticized heavily the contested project of reorganizing social and health services, not least on account of the reform providing a bigger role for the private sector in delivering such services. Rinne, who has a trade union background, has also together with the unions been strongly questioning the government’s policies aiming at improving economic growth and competitiveness. However, for the most part Rinne and the other opposition leaders have basically been content to sit back and let the government make its own mistakes.

The reorganization of social and health services has indeed caused serious turmoil also inside the cabinet. Basically the project is a deal between the Centre Party and the National Coalition, with the former getting the regional councils (the Centre Party is likely to perform strongly in regional elections given its often dominant role in the rural parts of the country) and the conservatives wanting to increase the role of the private sector. The two parties have been questioning each other’s commitment to the project, with particularly individual MPs of the National Coalition voicing strong public dissent of the reform as they doubt its economic benefits and also are concerned that the various constitutional constraints mean that the role of the private sector would in the end be much smaller than initially planned. According to the latest poll the National Coalition would finish second with 18,9 % of the vote, while the Centre Party would come third with 17,6 %. Apart from losing support on account of leading the government, supporters of the Centre may be worried that the party is heading in a too market-friendly direction under the leadership of PM Juha Sipilä.

The third governing party, the Blue Reform, is truly anxious as its support is only 1,1 %. The party was established following the split inside the populist Finns Party in summer 2017 when the Finns elected the MEP Jussi Halla-aho as its new leader. Halla-aho, who has been convicted in court for hate speech, and the entire new party leadership focuses strongly on immigration issues, and hence Halla-aho will no doubt make his best to push immigration to the campaign agenda. The latest poll shows the Finns Party getting 9,3 % of the vote, but one has to remember that in both the 2011 and 2015 elections the party performed much better than predicted by the opinion surveys. The Blue Reform seems to suffer from lack of credibility: the party was essentially put together by the more populist or moderate senior party figures that also were cabinet ministers, and hence many feel that they were just protecting their own ministerial positions. The Blue Reform has also been struggling to find its own niche and agenda between the more outspokenly nationalist the Finns Party and the conservative National Coalition.

The support of the Green League has declined fairly consistently over the past year. Excluding European Parliament elections, it won over 10 % of the vote for the first time in national elections in the municipal elections held in April 2017 when it received 12,5 % of the vote. The party’s popularity had been on the rise under the leadership of Ville Niinistö and peaked during the summer of 2017, with the Greens finishing even second in the polls with around 17-18 % of the vote. Touko Aalto, the new party leader, took office in June 2017 and even some leading party figures have publicly questioned Aalto’s image and leadership. The past year or so has been tough for Aalto, who has been in the headlines through his divorce, new relationship with a Green League party central office worker, and through partying shirtless in a Stockholm gay night club. Aalto’s leadership style has also been considerably more cautious than that of Niinistö, who was widely praised for his critique of the government. Aalto is currently on sick leave due to work stress and exhaustion, and it is not clear when he resumes his duties. The latest poll indicates the Green League getting 11,6 % of the vote, which would nonetheless be around three percent more than in the 2015 elections.

The Left Alliance has found an energetic new party chair in Li Andersson, and the party is doing well in the polls with 9,8 % of the vote, also almost three percent more than in the 2015 elections. Of the minor parties, the Christian Democrats would get 4,1 % of the vote and the Swedish People’s Party 3,7 %. Were these predictions to materialize, it would mean a moderate shift towards the left – but of course the right-leaning parties would still hold a comfortable majority of the seats in the Eduskunta. In terms of agenda, much depends on whether the reorganization of social and health services is indeed approved by the parliament before the elections. If it is, then there is more room for other issues such as immigration, education, or the European Union. But one thing seems fairly certain: political parties will invest most of their resources into the April Eduskunta elections, meaning that the European Parliament elections to be held in May will truly be ‘second-order’ for the party leaders.

Finland – Putin, Trump, and Niinistö

By the time this blog text is published, presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have held their high-profile ‘summit’ in Helsinki. At the time of writing (12 July), the speculations are running wild about the exact location of the meeting, the arrival times of the two foreign leaders, and the agenda of the summit. Whether the meeting will produce any meaningful results remains to be seen, but the purpose of this text is not to analyze US-Russian relations. Instead, the goal is to reflect on the summit from the broader perspective of the Finnish political regime.

Many commentators have quite legitimately argued that Finns are obsessed with the image of their country abroad. Small in terms of population, located in the northern periphery of Europe, Finnish decision-makers have been particularly concerned about whether Finland is seen as part of the ‘east’ or ‘west’ in Europe. Finland has stayed militarily non-aligned, and this ‘neutral’ status certainly was an important factor in Putin and Trump choosing Helsinki as their meeting place. Indeed, Helsinki has a solid track record of hosting such high-level summits – apart from the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), presidents Bush and Gorbachev met in Helsinki 1990, Bush and Yeltsin in 1992, while Clinton met Yeltsin in Helsinki in 1997.

The general verdict seems to be that acting as a host to world leaders improves the image of Finland in the international community, and also offers proof that staying militarily non-aligned – that is, not joining NATO – is a successful strategy for a country that shares a long border with Russia. Similar opinions have been voiced now before the meeting of Putin and Trump, with the domestic debate full of excitement about Finland at least for one day being in the spotlight of world politics. However, the implications of the summit for the Finnish presidency have received hardly any attention.

It is understood that president Sauli Niinistö had been offering Helsinki as a potential meeting place when talking previously to both Putin and Trump. While Niinistö may have had Finland’s interests in mind, hosting the summit should do no harm to Niinistö’s popularity either. Niinistö has proven extremely popular in the eyes of voters across the political spectrum, and he was re-elected to his second six-year term in January this year with a comfortable 62,6 % of the vote. This was the first time the president was elected already in the first round since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994. It essentially seems he can do nothing wrong, with people from the right and the left and from all corners of the country praising the work of Niinistö.

Here one needs to remember the constitutional constraints on the president. Finland used to have a very powerful presidency until the 1990s, but now presidential powers are basically limited to co-leading foreign policy with the government while domestic policy and European Union issues are handled by the government. Regarding external relations, a division of labour seems to have emerged whereby the prime minister and the government are responsible for foreign policy matters handled via the EU while the president focuses on bilateral ties with non-EU countries, particularly those led by presidents. Hence the president’s room for manoeuvre is small, but Niinistö has certainly exploited his powers to the full. He has maintained regular bilateral contacts with the Russian president, showing particular activism following Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Niinistö has visited the White House and has attended various international conferences on security policy, including the NATO summit currently held in Brussels. This has ensured high visibility for Niinistö in domestic media.

Perhaps frustrated by his limited powers and encouraged by his strong popularity ratings, Niinistö has maintained an active presence in the media, giving interviews and not hesitating to comment on issues outside of his jurisdiction. This is more understandable in European Union affairs, as the foreign policies of EU member states are strongly linked to the development of the EU’s common security and defence policy. Niinistö has repeatedly argued that the Union should become stronger and more coherent in its foreign and security policy, but constitutionally EU matters fall under the competence of the government. Earlier this year during the presidential elections Niinistö offered to host talks about various pressing domestic issues, and recently when the possibility of government resignation surfaced, Niinistö commented that cabinet dissolution would not automatically result in early elections – suggesting thus that he might become involved in government formation although the understanding is that the president should only formally appoint new cabinets. Interestingly, surveys report widespread support for strengthening the presidency, with the public willing to give the president powers also in domestic and EU policies.

Hence the forthcoming high-profile summit between Putin and Trump should be seen as logical continuation of both Finnish foreign policy and of presidential activism. No doubt Niinistö will make the most of the one-day summit, with photographs of him together with the Russian and American presidents making news headlines in Finland while the foreign media probably hardly mentions Niinistö at all. Should all go well, the summit will further boost the popularity of Niinistö while the government led by PM Juha Sipilä is experiencing serious internal disputes over its key project, the reorganization of social and health services and the associated introduction of directly-elected regional councils.

When the summer is over and Finnish politics returns to normal business, the question is whether the Sipilä cabinet will indeed last until the parliamentary elections scheduled for late spring 2019. The next government will in any case have to be in charge of the rotating EU presidency in the latter half of 2019. According to the constitution the president should not intervene in government formation or EU policy – whether this division of authority is also respected in practice remains to be seen.

Finland – Niinistö re-elected in the first round with 62.6 % of the vote

In the first round of the Finnish presidential elections held last Sunday, 28 January, the incumbent Sauli Niinistö secured his re-election with a comfortable 62,6 % of the vote. This was the first time the president was elected already in the first round since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994. Turnout was 69,9 % (including only those resident in Finland), just below the 70,1 % achieved in the latest parliamentary elections held in 2015.
Elected in 2012 as the candidate of the National Coalition, the conservative party that he chaired from 1994 to 2001, Niinistö had announced last May that he would seek re-election as an independent candidate. The National Coalition nonetheless indicated that it would endorse Niinistö’s campaign, and the party indeed campaigned quite actively in support of Niinistö. Also the Christian Democrats had decided to support Niinistö instead of fielding their own candidate.

Niinistö was the clear favourite throughout the campaign. In all surveys conducted since last summer between 60-80 % said they would vote for Niinistö. Contextual factors favoured the president. The war in Ukraine and the overall aggressive foreign policy of Russia have increased tensions in the neighbouring area, with these circumstances facilitating presidential activism. Bilateral ties with Russia became more important, and Niinistö’s high-profile meetings with Putin and other leaders received extensive friendly media coverage. Here one needs to remember that Finns are used to seeing the president as the guarantor of national security, and the unusually high approval ratings indicate that voters appreciated Niinistö’s foreign and security policy leadership. Another, quite different, type of a boost to Niinistö’s campaign came in the form of an announcement in October by the president and his wife Jenni Haukio that they were expecting a baby in February. Niinistö, who turns 70 in August, has also two adult sons from his previous marriage.

As the voters clearly approved of Niinistö’s track record in office, the other ‘mainstream’ candidates found it extremely difficult to challenge him. The constitutional prerogatives of the president are essentially limited to co-leading foreign and security policy with the government, and the debates largely focused on familiar themes – relations with Russia, the EU and NATO. To be sure, there were some relatively minor differences, with the left-leaning candidates – Merja Kyllönen (Left Alliance), Tuula Haatainen (Social Democrats), and Pekka Haavisto (Green League) – emphasizing global issues and equality, with Niinistö and Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party) in turn adopting more ‘realist’ positions. This was most evident in debates concerning relations with China, as two giant pandas donated by China arrived in Finland in mid-January. Nils Torvalds (Swedish People’s Party) in turn was the only candidate openly supportive of NATO membership.

At least some colour and ideological alternatives were brought to the campaign by Laura Huhtasaari (The Finns Party) and Paavo Väyrynen, currently an MEP and a long-standing, popular yet controversial, Centre Party politician who was now running as an independent candidate having been the presidential candidate of the Centre Party in the 1988, 1994 and 2012 elections. Both Huhtasaari and Väyrynen utilized anti-EU discourse, with Huhtasaari in particular also advocating much stronger powers for the president, including the right to dissolve the parliament. Such sentiments are shared by the electorate, with surveys reporting that the majority of the Finns would favour a stronger presidency and that the president should be also involved in domestic politics and EU affairs. The other candidates appeared by and large willing to respect the constitutional division of labour between the state institutions, but essentially all of them nonetheless flirted with the idea of an active president that would also, if needed, intervene in domestic matters.

Turning to the results, appealing primarily to the more liberal, urban, green-left younger voters, Haavisto finished second with 12,4 % of the vote. This was obviously a clear disappointment, given that six years earlier Haavisto had made it to the second round against Niinistö. The personal popularity of Haavisto combined with the recent rise of the Greens in Finnish politics undermined the prospects of Kyllönen and Haatainen. Kyllönen, an MEP known for her colourful rhetoric, finished with 3,0 % of the vote. The Social Democrats in turn had experienced major difficulties in finding a credible candidate, and Haatainen, known for her expertise in social and health policy, was clearly outside of her comfort zone. Haatainen received a dismal 3,2 % of the vote. This meant that the Social Democrats fared again really badly in presidential elections, with their more high-profile candidate Paavo Lipponen, the prime minister from 1995 to 2003, winning only 6,7 % of the vote in the 2012 elections.

The main excitement in the Centre Party was whether Väyrynen, who had severed ties with his party in the early 1990s over EU membership, would beat Vanhanen who served as the prime minister from 2003 to 2010. The race was indeed quite close, with Väyrynen getting 6,2 % and Vanhanen 4,1 % of the vote. To put it mildly, the outcome was a major embarrassment to Vanhanen and his party. Torvalds received 1,5 % of the vote.

Huhtasaari, the candidate of the populist and anti-immigration Finns Party, won 6,9 % of the vote. Her party had effectively split into two last June after the party congress had elected MEP Jussi Halla-aho, convicted in court for hate speech, as the new party leader. Immediately following the election of Halla-aho, the more moderate or populist wing of the party left the Finns and established a new party, the Blue Reform, which did not nominate a presidential candidate nor support any of the candidates. Huhtasaari was also the youngest (38) and least experienced of the candidates, having first entered the parliament in the 2015 elections. Hence she clearly performed well, and, together with Väyrynen, the combined vote share of the two Eurosceptical candidates was 13,1 %.

Overall, the results mean more of the same. Niinistö is not in favour of NATO membership, but supports the development of EU’s security and defence policy, bilateral security policy cooperation with Sweden, and maintaining close ties with NATO, views largely shared by the mainstream parties and the public. During his first six-year term Niinistö shared power with cabinets led by centre-right prime ministers, and this clearly contributed to smooth co-leadership in foreign policy. It also facilitated presidential activism, especially since the 2015 parliamentary elections as PM Juha Sipilä has proritised domestic issues such as reviving the economy and the re-organization of social and health services. Hence the results of the next parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 2019 and the personality of the next PM will be important in terms of Niinistö’s second term in office.

Finland – Niinistö the clear favourite to win the presidential elections

The first round of presidential elections in Finland is set for 28 January, and the likelihood of the incumbent Sauli Niinistö getting re-elected is very high indeed. According to the latest survey conducted earlier this month by Helsingin Sanomat, the leading national daily, 68 % would vote for Niinistö. This suggests that Niinistö has a good chance of winning the election already in the first round, something that has not happened since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994.

Contextual factors have clearly favoured Niinistö. The war in Ukraine and the overall aggressive foreign policy of Russia have increased tensions in the area, with these circumstances facilitating presidential activism. Bilateral ties with Russia have become more important, with Niinistö’s high-profile meetings with Putin receiving extensive media coverage. The current cabinet, led by prime minister Juha Sipilä, has also concentrated on its big projects in domestic politics, particularly the reorganization of social and health services, with the government seemingly happy to allow Niinistö to lead foreign and security policy – or at least relations with non-EU countries. Niinistö has consistently reminded the voters that we are living in unstable and turbulent times, and whether the use of such discourse is strategic or not, the heightened tensions have indeed highlighted the role of the president. Here one needs to remember that Finns are used to seeing the president as the guarantor of national security or even survival, a role associated especially with Urho Kekkonen who ruled the country for a quarter of a century between 1956 and 1981.

Elected in 2012 as the candidate of the National Coalition, the conservative party that he chaired from 1994 to 2001, Niinistö announced in May that he would seek re-election as an independent candidate. The move came out of the blue, with Niinistö simply stating that the president represents the entire nation instead of any specific political party. Independent candidates are obviously common, for example in several Central and Eastern European countries, but Niinistö’s decision nonetheless came as a big surprise, not least to his old party who is now without a candidate of its own. The National Coalition nonetheless indicated that it would endorse Niinistö’s campaign.

The constitutional prerogatives of the president are limited to co-leading foreign and security policy with the government and to being the head of the armed forces, but it looks certain that the campaign will also focus on domestic issues. This would probably not hurt Laura Huhtasaari, the colourful candidate of the Finns Party known for her outspoken nationalist and anti-immigration views. Her party effectively split into two in June after the party congress had elected MEP Jussi Halla-aho as the new party leader. Halla-aho, who has been convicted in court for hate speech, and the new party leadership looks set to take the party economically further to the right whilst engaging in hard-line attacks on immigration and multiculturalism. Huhtasaari will no doubt try to steer the debate in that direction. In the survey her support was just 3 %.

Immediately following the election of Halla-aho, Timo Soini, who had chaired the Finns Party since 1997 and had been the key to the phenomenal rise of the party, drew his own conclusions and the more moderate or populist wing of the party left the Finns and established a new parliamentary group of their own, the Blue Reform. This enabled Soini and his colleagues to remain in the government, but the future of the group looks very uncertain at the moment. The Blue Reform is yet to nominate a presidential candidate.

Of the other candidates, Pekka Haavisto of the Green League lost to Niinistö in the second round of the 2012 elections. A calm, analytical man with a strong background in UN and EU duties, the former environment minister came second in the Helsingin Sanomat survey with 13 % of the vote. Haavisto will no doubt appeal again to the more liberal, urban, green-left younger voters. This simultaneously undermines the prospects of MEP Merja Kyllönen, the candidate of the Left Alliance, whose support in the survey was 2 %. The Social Democrats in turn had clear difficulties in finding a good candidate, with Tuula Haatainen in the end nominated in early September. Her support was also extremely low, 3 %.

Moving to the centre-right parties, the candidate of the Centre is Matti Vanhanen, who served as the prime minister from 2003 to 2010. In the survey he garnered 2 % support. The candidate of the Swedish People’s Party is another MEP, Nils Torvalds. The Christian Democrats decided to support Niinistö instead of fielding their own candidate.

The popularity and media visibility of Niinistö raises serious problems for the other candidates. According to the public Niinistö has without a doubt performed well, particularly in foreign and security policy where his actions seem beyond criticism. This implies that at least some of the candidates have an incentive to steer the debate into policy areas not falling under the jurisdiction of the president. This would surely not be a good thing, especially as a large section of the population probably does not understand the division of competences between the government and the president.

Presidential profile – Tarja Halonen, the first female president of Finland

When Tarja Halonen (born 1943) was elected as the first female president of Finland in 2000, many interpreted that as the culmination of gender equality in Finland. Yet more critical voices pointed out that her election coincided with the entry into force of the new constitution that radically reduced presidential powers in favour of a more parliamentary regime. Indeed, to this day Finland has only had two female prime ministers for a combined spell of around one year (Anneli Jäätteenmäki in 2003 and Mari Kiviniemi in 2010-2011). Halonen was re-elected in 2006 and served thus as the president for two full six-year terms.

Large section of the electorate considered the social democratic Halonen as too ’red’ – which is also the color of her hair. Indeed, Halonen, who was a highly active speaker during her presidency, consistently focused on themes close to her heart – gender equality, the plight of women in developing countries, especially their right to education, democracy and the health of civil society, the United Nations, and human rights in general. These were themes that clearly resonated with particularly younger female voters – many of whom had in other elections voted for centre-right parties – and also reflected the gradually changing cleavage structure in Finnish politics. While the Finnish president co-leads foreign policy with the government, Halonen thus also had a personal, more ‘globalist’ agenda, but whether that had any impact on the preferences or knowledge of Finnish citizens is difficult to measure.

These interests reflect her professional and political background. With a degree in law, Halonen worked from 1970 onwards as a lawyer for the main blue-collar confederation, the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions. She joined the Social Democrats in the early 1970s and was first elected to the Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature, in 1979. She served as an MP until her election as the president in 2000. Halonen also held three ministerial portfolios: as social and health minister from 1987 to 1990, as justice minister from 1990 to 1991 and as foreign minister from 1995 to 2000. Within the Social Democratic party Halonen was estimated to belong to the more leftist wing of the parliamentary group.

Internationally, Halonen is probably best known for her work in the United Nations, an organization she clearly cares about very much. From 2002 to 2004 Halonen served as co-chair of World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, appointed by International Labour Organization ILO. From 2009 to 2014 she in turn was the Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders. In 2010 Halonen was appointed co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability and she is currently the co-chair of the High Level Task Force for International Conference on Population and Development. In the 1990s she was also active in the Council of Europe, first as Deputy-Chair of the Finnish delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly from 1991 to 1995 and later in the Ministerial Committee. In 2012 the TH Global Sustainability Foundation was established to promote the work of Halonen in the field of sustainable development.

Halonen was by and large very popular during her presidency, enjoying high levels of trust among the citizens. This is not surprising, as the Finnish presidents consistently enjoy stronger support than prime ministers or other politicians. However, while some prefer to remember Halonen through her interest in social causes and her global activism, others perhaps remember mainly her power struggles with the government – conflicts which she was destined to lose. In a way these intra-executive conflicts were inevitable and would most likely have taken place irrespective of who was the president.

The new constitution from 2000 was hailed as the end point of far-reaching constitutional change that curtailed presidential powers and parliamentarised the Finnish political system. However, it became very soon clear that the majority of political elite, not to mention constitutional lawyers, were somewhat unhappy with the constitution, arguing that it contained many articles which could produce unnecessary frictions between the government, the Eduskunta, and the president. Indeed, the presidency of Halonen was plagued with both open conflicts and behind-the-scenes tensions between the two executives. In EU matters, Finland was known for its policy of ‘two plates’, referring to the dual representation of both the prime minister and the president in the European Council despite the fact that according to the constitution EU policy belongs to the competence of the government. Many felt that through participating in the summits of the European Council, Halonen was acting against the spirit of the constitution. The government acquiesced to the situation, but was seemingly relieved when the Lisbon Treaty and the resulting changes to the European Council’s rules of procedure offered an external solution to the problem through allowing each member state to be represented in the summits by either the prime minister or the president. The government wasted no time in dictating that the president would no longer attend European Council meetings. Halonen protested but to no avail. This change was subsequently given constitutional status in 2012: ‘The Prime Minister represents Finland on the European Council. Unless the Government exceptionally decides otherwise, the Prime Minister also represents Finland in other activities of the European Union requiring the participation of the highest level of State.’

Also the president’s appointment powers were further reduced in 2012 – a change motivated no doubt by the fact that Halonen several times vetoed government’s proposals, appointing instead persons of her own choice to leading civil service positions. Most significantly, the president no longer appoints permanent secretaries who are the leading civil servants in the ministries. Through her active use of powers vested in the presidency, Halonen thus contributed to the further parliamentarization of Finnish politics.

Halonen lives in Helsinki with her husband, Pertti Arajärvi. More information on her past and current activities is available at https://presidenthalonen.fi/en/.