Literature on semi-presidentialism is full of examples of constitutionally weak presidents using the strategy of ‘going public’ to influence politics. This applies certainly to Finland. Stripped of direct legislative powers and most weeks enjoying a fairly empty calendar, recent office-holders have actively resorted to more indirect avenues of influence. The current President Sauli Niinistö meets various political actors from foreign leaders to domestic interest groups and gives interviews and speeches. The impact of these activities is essentially impossible to measure, but surely they are motivated by re-election and/or policy influence.
Two high-profile annual speeches are particularly relevant here: the New Year’s speech and opening of the annual session of the Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature. The latter speech took place last Thursday. In his speech Niinistö, who was elected in 2012 as the candidate of the conservative National Coalition party, focused on the refugee situation. Niinistö questioned whether the international agreements on asylum-seekers were outdated, and offered the opinion that ‘the flow of immigration into Europe and Finland is largely a case of migration rather than a flight from immediate danger’. Niinistö’s views were particularly welcomed by the populist and anti-immigration the Finns Party, with the leader of the party’s parliamentary group, Sampo Terho, declaring that ‘the President’s speech was a real piece of statesmanship’ and that it was ‘the most significant and the best presidential speech in my lifetime’.
Media covered the speech widely, with the main newspapers and TV channels basically just reporting what the president had said. Some more liberal organisations and individuals were clearly agitated by Niinistö’s words, and comments spread quickly in social media, but politicians’ response was in line with established behavioural norms. Apart from some individual left-wing MPs that defended the value of international rules and cooperation in solving the refugee problem, most ministers and parliamentarians either praised the speech or at least did not criticize it. This reflects the usual practice: while the speeches of prime minister and other cabinet ministers are scrutinized carefully, with obviously the opposition parties in particular attacking the government, the president’s speeches seem to be beyond public criticism. This may in part be explained by the fact that the president has so limited powers, but more likely it reflects the political culture where the president, as the head of state, is both respected and above party politics.
Whether one agrees with Niinistö’s world-view or not, the question we should ask is are such presidential addresses needed anymore? If you ask the public, the answer would probably be yes. Another benefit is that they can contribute to public debate, especially if the speeches are on topical and divisive issues. The refugee crisis is definitely topical and also an issue where the ideologically heterogeneous government – bringing together the Centre Party, the National Coalition, and the Finns Party – has really failed to articulate a coherent policy line. But problems are also easy to see. President’s speeches, particularly as they seem to focus on policy areas outside of his jurisdiction, can lead to misperceptions of presidential powers. Here we need to remember that Finland was a strongly president-led society until the 1990s, and many people may not understand the current division of powers between the government and the president. The refugee crisis is of course indirectly linked to foreign policy which the president co-directs together with the government. Immigration, however, belongs to the competence of the government as does EU policy. Considering that any effective solutions to the crisis probably require European level measures, it is thus more important to know the position of the government – and particularly the preferences of the prime minister and the minister of the interior – that ultimately decides these matters and represents Finland in EU bargaining.
More importantly, it can be argued that such high-profile addresses are a thing of the past. In the Cold War era, the whole society had good reasons to listen carefully to the president. Vested with significant powers, his preferences genuinely mattered. Before the Internet, the public did not have access to as varied sources of information as today, and these kinds of traditional communication methods were more prominent in shaping societal debate. Nowadays anyone can find easily a wealth of information on matters like the refugee crisis, and hence the standard argument about the president being an ‘opinion leader’ seems rather outdated. It is perfectly understandable that in the United States the president’s State of the Union address is important: the president has significant policy-making authority and the speech enables him to outline his legislative and foreign policy priorities. In countries where the president is weak, no similar justification exists. Obviously the president is free to give as many interviews as he likes, but are these types of high-profile ‘institutionalized’ speeches really needed anymore?