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Halonen: Rapid changes in Finnish politics shift more power to presidency

In a rare TV interview, former President Tarja Halonen spoke out on recent swift changes in Finland's government.

Tarja Halonen
Tarja Halonen became Finland’s first woman president in 2000, serving two six-year terms. Image: AOP

Former President Tarja Halonen says that last year’s rapid pace of change in the Finnish government shifted the balance of power more toward the presidency.

Interviewed on Yle TV1’s Ykkösaamu current events show on Saturday, Halonen expressed satisfaction that the five-party governing coalition held together with the same programme despite the change of premier and other ministers last month.

In early December, Sanna Marin replaced fellow Social Democrat Antti Rinne as prime minister. He had lost the confidence of the SDP’s main government partner, the Centre following a protracted labour dispute.

Halonen said that the handover was "a better result than in many other countries".

“It could have gone worse. Now it’s possible to put together relatively coherent policies from different pieces. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this coalition stays together long enough to get results,” Halonen said.

The resignation of Rinne’s government was the second last year. In March, the centre-right government led by Prime Minister Juha Sipilä stepped down after the collapse of its healthcare reform. The cabinet served in a caretaker capacity through April’s elections and into early June, when Rinne was sworn in.

President 'responsible for calming the atmosphere'

Halonen sees the exceptional resignation of two cabinets within a year as a sign that Finnish politics have become more unstable, which she sees as strengthening the role of the presidency.

“This brings the president more power in that he or she remains in office for six years at a time,” Halonen said. However she dismissed the notion that the powers of the presidency should be increased.

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presidentin uudenvuodenpuhe Presidentti Urho Kekkonen 1.1.1972
President Urho Kekkonen's New Year's Speech in 1972 Image: Håkan Sandblom / Yle

They were sharply limited following the autocratic rule of President Urho Kekkonen, who stepped down in 1982 after a quarter-century in office. A term limit of 12 years was also imposed.

Halonen said the current situation underlines the president’s responsibility for calming the atmosphere, adding that incumbent Sauli Niinistö’s calm personality makes him ideal for the job.

She partly blamed the media for the heated political mood, saying it had become "exceedingly more vehement and rapid-paced".

Now 76, Halonen served as president from 2000 to 2012, the first woman to hold the post. Before that she served as foreign minister and justice minister. Like Rinne, she was a Social Democratic lawyer with a labour union background.

Support for Haavisto on al-Hol issue

Halonen also voiced her support for Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto in the dispute over his handling of the planned repatriation of Finns from the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria. He was accused of sidelining a top civil servant at the ministry after disagreements on the issue, but cleared of any wrongdoing by the parliamentary Foreign Affairs committee.

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Pekka Haavisto
Pekka Haavisto Image: Yle

The former president pointed out that cabinet ministers are responsible for policy decisions and must answer to Parliament for them. She said that if ministers cannot prepare for decisions due to reluctance from civil servants, the result would be that bureaucrats would make political decisions rather than ministers.

Halonen suggested that the attempt by some opposition politicians to launch an investigation in Haavisto’s actions was linked to his status as the front runner in public opinion polls ahead of the next presidential election, which is not until 2024.

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