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Father of Finland's "Second Republic": Mauno Koivisto's last journey

Finland's great and good gathered in Helsinki on Ascension Thursday for the state funeral of Mauno Koivisto, the ninth president of independent Finland.

 Tasavallan presidentti Sauli Niinistö puhuu presidentti Mauno Koiviston hautajaisisa.
President Sauli Niinistö gives the euology for former President Mauno Koivisto. Image: Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva

Helsinki came to a standstill on Thursday as Finland followed the state funeral of Mauno Koivisto, who was president from 1982 until 1994. The streets filled with crowds estimated by police to number around 30,000, with the funeral itself started in Helsinki Cathedral. It was Finland's first state funeral since former Prime Minister Harri Holkeri died in 2011, and the first funeral of a former president since Urho Kekkonen died in 1986.

The ceremony began with floral tributes from Koivisto's close relatives, Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, the Speaker of Parliament Maria Lohela and Finland's three living presidents: Martti Ahtisaari, Tarja Halonen and the incumbent, Sauli Niinistö.

Bishop Eero Huovinen then gave the funeral sermon, in which he lauded Koivisto's human side. The bishop recounted an anecdote from Koivisto's wartime service, which spanned both the Winter and Continuation wars, and in which Koivisto served in legendary war hero Lauri Törni's unit.

"Hands of peace"

Koivisto had been despatched to escort Soviet prisoners behind the lines when the group encountered some hostile Finns, but Koivisto defended the POWs and prevented any mistreatment.

"Mauno Koivisto's hands were the hands of peace," said Huovinen. "Also when he was defending his country in the war, he wanted to do so in a conciliatory way with an eye on the future."

Koivisto had been Prime Minister twice, served two terms as President and was chair of the Bank of Finland, all a far cry from his early life as the son of a carpenter who started his career at Turku harbour. He then went to university, became a teacher, entered politics and eventually became Finland's head of state.

Dilution of power

That story was cited as an example of "Finnish success" by President Niinistö.

"In these roles, Koivisto became familiar with Finnish working life and workers at all levels," said Niinistö. "Perhaps he discovered that the laws of human interaction vary little, whether you are wearing overalls on a construction site or wearing a suit around a ministerial table."

Niinistö went on to describe Koivisto's era as president as the beginning of a new era in Finnish history. During the Kekkonen presidency, which lasted for 26 years, power was centralised in the president's hands. When he took over Koivisto diluted the power of the office, and therefore his own power, cementing Finland's status as a parliamentary democracy.

He himself expressed this as a belief that it's better if power is not concentrated too much in one individual's hands—a stance Niinistö greatly appreciated.

Finland's "second republic"

"Koivisto’s republic, at least, was therefore one of a different kind," said Niinistö. "This is not far from the idea that it actually marked the beginning of Finland's second republic."

Hymns included Hyvyyden voiman ihmeelliseen suojaan (The Power of Goodness), while the Cantores Minores cathedral choir performed  Jean Sibelius’s Sydämeni laulu (Song of My Heart). At the bereaved family's request the choir also sang Kalervo Hämäläinen’s Veteraanin iltahuuto (Veteran’s Evening Call), a military number penned in 1988 in tribute to Finland's war veterans.

Some 30,000 people lined the streets to pay their respects as the funeral cortege made its way from Helsinki cathedral to Hietaniemi cemetery via the Presidential Palace, the Bank of Finland and the seat of government—all institutions Koivisto led during his long and illustrious career.

Koivisto was finally laid to rest in Hietaniemi Cemetery in the space reserved for former presidents, where Risto Ryti and Urho Kekkonen are also buried. As soon as the police cordon was lifted, crowds began to pour in to the cemetery pay their own respects at the graveside.

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