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/.

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