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Merja Kyllönen: Daring to be different

The Left Alliance's Merja Kyllönen takes a strong anti-NATO stance in her bid for the presidency. 

Merja Kyllönen
Merja Kyllönen. Image: Sebastian Dahlström

Kyllönen accepted her party’s nomination as presidential candidate back in March, and was the first woman to enter the race. Left Alliance party chair Li Andersson emphasised the importance of naming the party’s presidential candidate early to attract undecided voters.

Kyllönen has profiled herself as a "President of Values" – in a slight to incumbent Sauli Niinistö, whom she has criticised for being too soft on certain issues.

Her key themes are the fight against climate change, the need for equality to be front and centre in Finnish domestic and foreign policy, and opposition to Finland joining any military alliances.

Polls consistently suggest that more than half of the Finnish population is opposed to Finland joining NATO, and yet elected politicians of all stripes are pursuing deeper cooperation with the US-led association. Election polls gauging voter tendencies suggest that Kyllönen would nab two percent of the vote in the first round of voting on January 28.

Ending disparity

But opposition to NATO is not Merja Kyllönen’s first priority. Her main concern is complacence in the face of what she sees as growing fascism in her home country. On November 18, at the official launch of her campaign, she complained that "Finland has recently become a country where people of the wrong colour are spit on, and Nazis march in the streets". She blamed the entire Finnish political system, saying that all leaders "need to look in the mirror".

Among other things, she accused the government of letting the anti-immigrant Finns Party define what it means to be a Finn, and pointed out what she sees as the consequences of an isolationist mindset.

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Merja Kyllönen
Merja Kyllönen. Image: Nick Tulinen

"We imagine that the big global problems of the world will be solved if we just curl up in a ball here within Finland’s borders. We could try it: turn in our passports, pull our hats down over our eyes and tell ourselves that things will get better and the flow of migrants will stop. But I doubt it. It’s a bit like peeing your pants to warm yourself in the winter."

The Left Alliance has also sided with the Greens as the strongest proponents of equal and free education at all levels in Finland, in response to government cuts. Kyllönen recently tweeted her party’s call to make all forms of vocational training in Finland free to students, for example.

"Call me Merja"

At the age of 30, Kyllönen was elected to the Finnish Parliament on her second try. She served on several parliamentary committees during her seven years as an MP, and acted as Minister of Transport in 2011-2014. During this time, Kyllönen earned a reputation as someone who preferred to quickly dispense with formalities - "call me Merja"- so everyone could get to work.

In 2014 she was elected to represent Finland in Brussels as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), where she currently serves on the European Parliament’s transport and tourism committee, as well as the environment, public health and food safety committee.

As a child, Left Alliance presidential candidate Merja Kyllönen preferred helping her father harvest trees in the forest to housework. Born in 1977 in the northeast Finland town of Suomussalmi to a working class family, Kyllönen says she grew up talking politics and was always encouraged to speak her mind, even if the other schoolchildren sometimes called her a communist behind her back.

After finishing upper secondary school in 1996, Kyllönen applied to study pathology at university but fell one point short of being accepted. She then studied to be a bioanalyst in Oulu, and worked for several years as a lab technician. She entering politics in 2000 as a Left Alliance representative - first as a city councillor, and later on behalf of the Kainuu region she continues to call home.

Merja Kyllönen still lives in the village of Pesiökylä outside of Suomussalmi, when she is not tending to her MEP duties in Brussels and Strasbourg. She and her husband of 12 years, entrepreneur Mika Pihlajamaa, share their home with several dogs. She continues to enjoy working in the forest and writes poetry.

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