Any potential candidate considering whether to seriously challenge the current office-holder Sauli Niinistö (born 1948) in the next Finnish presidential elections scheduled for January 2018 must be having second thoughts. Niinistö, elected to the post in 2012 with a comfortable margin as the candidate of the conservative National Coalition party, is yet to announce his plans, but should he decide to run his chances of re-election are very high indeed. Enjoying popularity ratings normally achieved by leaders in North Korea and other non-democratic regimes, it appears Niinistö can do nothing wrong.
Following on from his 2006 campaign, when he advertised himself as the ‘president of the working class’ and reached the second round of the presidential elections only to lose narrowly to the incumbent social democrat Tarja Halonen, Niinistö has very much sought to distance himself from his conservative party-political background. He has repeatedly emphasized that no one should be left behind, and that the well-being of the country depends on unity and the will to act together. Whether this discourse has any effect is not known as the president no longer enjoys any legislative powers in domestic policy. However, Niinistö has given generously to various charitable causes and has consistently reminded that politicians and other elites should lead by example. When he was the speaker of the Finnish parliament, Niinistö demanded that MPs travel in second class and stay in standard hotels, a policy that attracted widespread criticism among the deputies.
The remaining powers of the president are in the areas of foreign and security policy. Considering that Finland shares a long border with Russia, foreign and security policy is always a salient issue in Finland. People appreciate solid leadership in external affairs and by all accounts Niinistö has met such expectations. While the government is alone responsible for EU matters, foreign policy leadership is shared between the president and the government. Before his presidency Niinistö was critical of moves to further reduce the prerogatives of the president, and since elected he has certainly shown activism in foreign affairs. Here Niinistö’s leadership has been facilitated by developments in neighbouring Russia, whose aggressive foreign policy has created unwelcome tensions in eastern and northern Europe. During recent years Finland has maintained active bilateral relations with Russia, with regular meetings between presidents Putin and Niinistö in a central role in this dialogue. Niinistö has also benefited from the fact that the current prime minister, Juha Sipilä of the Centre Party, is clearly preoccupied with revitalizing domestic economy, leaving thus foreign affairs other than those handled via the EU more to Niinistö.
Finland had three consecutive social democratic presidents between 1982 and 2012, and hence Niinistö is the first right-wing head of state in a long while. Niinistö has shared power with cabinets led by the National Coalition and the Centre Party, but he is also used to working with the political left. He served as the minister of finance in the five-party ‘rainbow’ government led by social democratic prime minister Paavo Lipponen from 1996 to 2003 (he was first the minister of justice for a brief spell from 1995 to 1996). During that time he developed an image as a man keeping the purse strings tight. Niinistö was simultaneously also the leader of the National Coalition, a position he served from 1994 to 2001. Very popular inside his party, he nonetheless received criticism for trusting only a close group of friends and not paying sufficient attention to the views of the party members. Between 2003 and 2007 Niinistö worked as the Vice President of the European Investment Bank and from 2007 to 2011 as the speaker of the Finnish parliament.
With a degree in law from the University of Turku, Niinistö worked as a lawyer in his home town of Salo before elected to the parliament in 1987. In the 1995, 1999 and 2007 parliamentary elections he was the vote king of the elections, receiving the highest number of votes of all the candidates (in the Finnish parliamentary elections voters choose between individual candidates). His vote total from 2007, 60 563, is the record in Finnish parliamentary elections. He is married to Jenni Haukio, who is 29 years younger than Niinistö. The couple has no children, but Niinistö has two adult sons from his previous marriage.