Born in a small town south of Tampere, Holkeri went on to earn a master's degree in political science from the University of Helsinki.
Holkeri, who served as the President of the UN General Assembly's Millennium session in 2000-2001, also earned an international reputation as a peace negotiator.
In the late 1990s, Holkeri co-chaired Northern Ireland peace negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement, a major political development in the Northern Ireland peace process. For his efforts, Queen Elizabeth II made him an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
In the summer of 2003 Holkeri took over as head of UNMIK, the UN's civilian administration in Kosovo. The following spring he stepped down from the post because of weakening health.
He ran for president in 1982 and 1988, losing both times to Mauno Koivisto, his former colleague from the Bank of Finland.
Holkeri chaired the conservative National Coalition Party (NCP) through most of the 1970s, becoming the first post-war NCP prime minister between 1987 and 1991. This summer Jyrki Katainen became the second.