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Sauli Niinistö: Incumbent aiming to win big

President Sauli Niinistö could score an unprecedented first round victory in the 2018 Presidential election, if his lead in the polls translates into votes.

Sauli Niinistö.
Sauli Niinistö. Image: Sebastian Dahlström
Wif Stenger

With opinion polls in late November and early December showing support of between 64 and 80 percent, the incumbent could score a first-round victory in January’s election. That would be a first since the electoral system was changed to a direct popular vote in 1994.

The last time around, in early 2012, Niinistö defeated Green candidate Pekka Haavisto in the second round. He then ran on the conservative National Coalition Party (NCP) ticket, but relinquished his party membership before taking office. Since then he has sought to detach himself from party politics, and this time decided to run as an independent, backed by a voters’ association. Last summer it collected more than 156,000 signatures from supporters, far beyond the required 20,000.

Staying above the fray of day-to-day political infighting has been a hallmark of most Finnish presidents. Another has been the delicate balancing act between the gravitas needed as a head of state, and a folksy connection with the person on the street – another one that Niinistö has mastered, as attested to by his consistently high approval ratings. Yet another crucial balancing act that he and other successful Finnish presidents have managed is forging strong personal ties with the leader of Russia on one hand, and with Western and other key world leaders on the other.

Niinistö’s solid, steady abilities in these three areas go a long way toward explaining his popularity and strong chance of re-election.

Dry lawyer and budget hawk

Before becoming president, Niinistö was generally seen as a rather dry, serious lawyer and budget hawk, who served as a judge and then as Justice Minister in the mid-90s and as Finance Minister for seven years up to 2003. He also served as Deputy Prime Minister for six years, but never as prime minister.

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Sauli Niinistö
Sauli Niinistö Image: Sauli Niinistön kampanjasivut

Niinistö was an MP from 1987 to 2011, except during a four-year stint as a vice president of the European Investment Bank. He took that post after a number of years as a governor of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. On his return to Parliament in 2007, he was elected as Speaker, earning a reputation for running a tight ship.

Cautious policy stances

As an MP and cabinet minister, Niinistö followed a stolid centre-right political path, leaning pro-business and pro-NATO (a stance he has dropped since becoming president) and taking a quiet, cautious-to-negative view on social issues such as same-sex marriage and euthanasia.

Through most of the 90s and into the early 2000s, Niinistö chaired the NCP as well as the European Democratic Union. Beginning in the late 70s and overlapping with his time in parliament, Niinistö was active in local politics in his hometown of Salo, a former Nokia hub halfway between Helsinki and Turku.

There he was born into a modest family in August 1948, the youngest of four siblings. His brother became a professor – and father of future environment minister and Greens chair Ville Niinistö, the president’s nephew.

Tragedy, survival – and a new family

Among the public, the ups and downs of the president’s personal life may have helped to bring more warmth and soften his otherwise rather dry reputation. So did his fondness for roller-blading.

As a young lawyer and local councillor in the 70s, he married Marja-Leena Alanko, with whom he had two sons, now in their 40s. But tragedy struck in 1995, when his wife of more than 20 years died in a road accident. In 2004, Niinistö and one of his sons narrowly survived the Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand. That same year, Niinistö broke off a high-profile engagement to former Miss Finland Tanja Karpela, then a Centre Party MP and Minister of Culture.

About three years after that, Niinistö quietly began dating his own party’s communications manager, Jenni Haukio, nearly 30 years his junior. She had already published two collections of poetry, later releasing a third and becoming director of the Turku Book Fair. The pair stunned the Finnish media with the surprise announcement of their relationship – on their wedding day.

This past October, there was another headline announcement: the presidential couple is expecting a child in February 2018, her first and Niinistö's third. Some pundits speculated that the prospect of the first baby apparently ever born to a Finnish president while in office would remove any doubts about the popular appeal of the incumbent candidate. For instance, Turku University political scientist and Yle commentator Erkka Railo tweeted: "By now, the game is finally over for the other candidates. You may as well go home."

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