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Matti Vanhanen: 'Finland’s sexiest man' looking for presidential redemption

Centre Party heavy-hitter Matti Vanhanen’s personal peccadilloes and professional imbroglios make him arguably the most colourful candidate going into Finland’s 2018 presidential election campaign.

Matti Vanhanen
Matti Vanhanen. Image: Sebastian Dahlström

Now 62, this is not the first presidential rodeo for the lanky six-foot-sixer, as he polled a respectable 18.6 percent of the vote when he challenged then-incumbent president Tarja Halonen in 2006.

Vanhanen’s résumé also boasts a spell as Prime Minister from 2003 to 2010, when he abruptly left office citing health issues after a series of campaign funding scandals. His resignation paved the way for businessman and political neophyte Juha Sipilä, who aimed to dissipate the odour of controversy that hung over the party until he took over as leader in 2012.

As president and head of Finnish foreign and security policy, Vanhanen’s staunch anti-NATO stance would likely steer Finland clear of membership in the military alliance. He is also less europhile than many Finnish politicians, emphasising pragmatism in EU policy.

The teetotaller is seen as a standard-bearer for the more liberal and business-friendly flavour of Centre Party politics, and during his premiership he reduced personal income and corporate tax rates as well as increased the minimum retirement age.

Steep climb to premiership, scandals pile up

Vanhanen’s political trajectory began quite early in life. At 25 he became chair of the youth wing of the agrarian Centre Party, and he served on the Espoo city council in the early 80s. He entered parliament in 1991, and was made Defence Minister in 2003.

When premier Anneli Jäätteenmäki resigned prematurely over allegations of lying to Parliament about how she acquired confidential information that she had used during the election campaign, Vanhanen stepped in to become party leader and PM after just two months in the post.

Vanhanen bowed out of office and politics mid-way during his second term as premier in 2010, citing surgery as the reason for his decision. However a series of personal and party scandals (€ ) had by then tarnished the uniquely vanilla brand which had previously seen readers of a women’s magazine anoint him "Finland’s sexiest man".

Story continues after photo

Matti Vanhanen
Matti Vanhanen Image: Matti Vanhanen kampanjasivut

In 2007 he was alleged to have inappropriately received financial support from the Centre-controlled Youth Foundation in violation of campaign funding law and the foundation’s own statutes. In 2010 he faced a conflict of interest probe over his alleged failure to recuse himself from a series of decisions to grant more than one million euros of funding to the Youth Foundation between 2006 and 2009. He chaired the organisation from 1998-2003. Parliament’s Constitutional Law Committee ultimately cleared him of any suspicion of wrongdoing.

Vanhanen also came under renewed scrutiny over allegations that as prime minister, he inappropriately accepted a gift of building materials from a construction company fishing for contracts.

Steamy exposé sees ex-couple in court

Vanhanen’s personal life also provided fodder for the tabloids as well as the mainstream media. Before his divorce from his wife of 20 years in 2005, reports swirled about alleged extra-marital affairs. The self-styled family man was later linked to a woman known as Susanna Ruusunen (formerly Kuronen), who in 2007 published a kiss-and-tell novel about her relationship with the premier, The Prime Minister’s Bride.

Kuronen told a magazine, Me Naiset, that the premier went on to dump her via text message. Her book fired readers’ imaginations by describing the couple’s intimate relations -- and Vanhanen’s preference for baked potatoes.

In 2010 the Supreme Court upheld a conviction against Ruusunen and her publisher for invasion of privacy, but noted in its ruling that some of the book’s revelations had broader societal significance, including the fact that the premier had lied (content in Finnish) about meeting Ruusunen at the Ikea furniture chain instead of online.

After stepping down from office in 2010 Vanhanen took up a position with a lobby group known as the Family Business Network. In 2014 he announced his return to the cut and thrust of the political arena. In April 2015 voters sent him back to Parliament, where he was appointed the head of the Centre’s parliamentary group. Just one year later in June 2016, he announced his intention to join the 2018 presidential election.

In November Vanhanen was polling at just two percent—almost within the margin of error. With incumbent Sauli Niinistö holding a big lead over his rivals, and former party comrade Paavo Väyrynen fighting for many of the same votes, Vanhanen faces what looks like an uphill battle to make a mark in this campaign.

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