A new book by Aamulehti journalists Matti Mörttinen and Lauri Nurmi alleges that not only has President Sauli Niinistö used the full scope of foreign policy powers granted to him by the Finnish constitution, he has also extended his reach to influence internal politics.
Titled “Sauli Niinistö – the Lord of Mäntymieni”, the book by Mörttinen and Nurmi was released on Monday. In it the writers claim that Niinistö wielded his influence to help broker the government’s so-called competitiveness pact.
According to the writers, towards the end of 2015, the administration’s economy-boosting venture was in danger of foundering. In early December, the government had announced that talks aimed at hammering out a package of reforms in its so-called social accord had run aground.
The deal sought to reform the labour market in a bid to reduce unit labour costs and make Finnish companies more competitive against their international peers.
It was assumed at the time that Prime Minister Juha Sipilä's government would then push through the desired changes by way of legislation.
However the book asserts that the talks had never fully broken down.
“In December, President Niinistö summoned labour market leaders to Mäntyniemi. He used the full weight of his position and popular support to compel the organisations to continue the negotiations,” Nurmi said.
The events outlined in the book were independently corroborated by Lauri Lyly, then-chair of the largest blue-collar union confederation SAK and by Jyri Häkämies, who was then the president of the country’s influential private sector business lobby group EK.
“If this had been made public at the time, it would have probably spawned a serious debate about whether or not this kind of intervention into domestic politics complied with the constitution or if it entered a grey area in the use of power,” Nurmi pondered.
However the meeting remained under wraps and in 2016 the government and labour market organisations announced a joint competitiveness agreement that dispensed with the need for legislation.
Among other things, the agreement required workers increase to their time on the job by 24 hours a year, while public sector workers had to contend with a 30-percent reduction in vacation pay.
Finnish-Russian relations turned on Fennovoima nuclear project
At the turn of the century, Finland amended its constitution to considerably fetter the power of the presidency, restricting the role to overseeing foreign and security policy and to share executive power with the prime minister.
According to Mörttinen and Nurmi, Ninistö has indeed focused on foreign policy, particularly the area of relations between Finland and its much-larger eastern neighbour Russia.
The book claims that Niinistö's stewardship of these ties took on even greater significance when the majority state-owned energy company Fortum announced it would buy into the highly-contested Fennovoima nuclear power project, which was part-owned - and to be delivered - by the nuclear contractor Rosatom which is owned by the Russian state.
“Niinistö made it clear to Prime Minister Sipilä that the demise of [the] Fennovoima [project] would threaten governmental relations between Finland and Russia,” Nurmi explained.
At the time, the project was in danger of collapsing, because it did not have the level of domestic or EU ownership required to proceed. However Fortum came to the rescue by buying into the troubled northwest Finland nuclear power plant project.
“When Niinistö made contact with the Prime Minister and Fortum board chair Sari Baldauf, Fortum changed its position on Fennovoima,” Nurmi asserted.
“Fortum has become the President’s company. There is now a fine negative balance in energy policy,” he added.
Nurmi suggested that in the same way that it's important for Russia for Rosatom to build the Fennovoima plant, it is also crucial for Fortum to maintain its own investments in Russia.
Niinistö unfazed by narrowing of powers
The central thesis of the book is that Niinistö is a “positive populist”, who does not hesitate to use his power.
“If we compare [him] to Mauno Koivisto, for example, for whom everything was about parliamentarianism and supporting the government, Niinistö is not the same,” Mörttinen said.
“Like a populist, Niinistö aligns himself with the populace against the elites or the upper crust. Lesser politicians, in other words MPs in the middle, may feel the wrath of either the ruler or the people,” Mörttinen quipped.
“Niinistö has become hugely popular, almost a mythical figure, although presidential powers have been pared down and his staff is small.”
Mörttinen added that Niinistö’s popularity has amplified his position beyond that of his official station.
“The Foreign Ministry is no longer the President’s ministry, but occasionally there is almost mistrust between the president and his officials. There’s no room for that in such a small country,” the writer concluded.
Professor: Niinistö's actions violate "spirit of the constitution"
Meanwhile Tampere University political science professor Tapio Raunio said that the president should keep out of internal politics, regardless of whether or not his actions would be a benefit or hindrance to the sitting government.
Raunio, who specializes in areas such as the president’s position in the local political system, said that President Niinistö’s interventions in domestic affairs run counter to the spirit of the constitution.
“The government is responsible for all internal and EU politics – the president should just stay out of that. It doesn’t matter whether Niinistö’s actions would benefit or hinder the government; it’s a question of the division of power. The end result does not justify it,” he declared.
“No law can prevent the president from meeting labour market leaders for example.”
The boundary delineating the areas where the president should use his vested powers can shift, Raunio added.
“Of course if we aim for a broad definition then many things can be seen as related to foreign policy. However I would not start stretching boundaries in this way."