Nils Torvalds, the Swedish People’s Party (SPP) candidate, may so far have one of the lowest support levels according to opinion polls, – yet he shares the same broad policy views as the front-runner and incumbent, the conservative Sauli Niinistö.
Torvalds comes from quite a different political background, though. He was a card-carrying member of the Finnish Communist Party from 1969 to 1982.
Like banking mogul Björn Wahlroos and author-politician Jörn Donner – fellow scions of prominent Swedish-speaking Helsinki families – he became a leftist activist in the late ‘60s. Yet while Wahlroos and Donner soon abandoned the left and became middle-of-the-road SPP supporters, Torvalds remained a dedicated Communist until the end of the Brezhnev era. He edited a Communist newspaper and studied in Moscow in the late 70s.
His proficiency in the Russian language came in handy when he served as an Yle correspondent in Moscow, later moving on to Washington.
Along the way, Torvalds’ political views eventually moved toward the right, including support for Finland joining the NATO military alliance. That stance puts him at odds with Finnish public opinion, which polls show is consistently opposed to NATO membership.
He finally joined the SPP fold a decade ago, by now a solid centrist.
Torvalds was born just after the end of the Continuation War in the genteel town of Ekenäs (Tammisaari) in western Uusimaa. His father, Ole Torvalds, was a leading poet, newspaper editor and translator. Ole’s father had also been a newspaper editor, author and political insider. Nils’ wife is a journalist whose father was a distinguished professor.
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More famous than any of them, though, is Nils’ son Linus Torvalds, 47, originator of the open-source operating system Linux. The winner of multiple awards, he now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works for the Linux Foundation.
Circular economy and cormorants
Torvalds served as a Helsinki city councillor but never as an MP. Five years ago, he inherited a seat in the European Parliament, where this year he became a vice-chair of the centrist Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.
Torvalds also holds the mysterious title of Shadow Rapporteur on the Circular Economy. That reflects his focus on sustainability issues and championing of renewable energy. He also serves on the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety and the Fisheries Committee. On the latter, he has voiced concerns – shared by many in the Finland’s majority Swedish-speaking archipelago and coastal villages – over the proliferation of cormorants, large birds which have taken a toll on fish catches and disfigured many islands with their guano.
Other key issues for him have been tackling money laundering and strengthening the European Monetary Union. The latter, along with his support for Finnish NATO membership and criticism of Russian moves in Ukraine, suggest that he has travelled a long way since his student days in Moscow four decades ago.
The opposition SPP is generally a centrist party with disparate factions linked mostly by a desire to retain Swedish as the country’s second language – a status that has in recent years been challenged by English, Russian and others. The Swedish-speaking minority has dwindled from around 14 percent in the late nineteenth century to just 5.3 percent now. Not counting the autonomous Åland Islands, the figure is less than five percent.
With backers ranging from fishers and farmers on the west coast to members of the wealthy elite in Helsinki and Kauniainen, the SPP is a big-tent party. It tends to be close to the Greens and even the Left on issues such as the environment, immigration and – not surprisingly – minority rights. However it leans to the right on economics and security policy, including official support for joining NATO. That was agreed last year under former chair Defence Minister Carl Haglund, whose MEP seat Torvalds inherited five years ago.
The party’s other best-known politician was also a Defence Minister: Elisabeth Rehn. A UN official and rights activist, she narrowly lost the 1994 presidential election. Torvalds has big shoes to fill if he, too, hopes to make it to the second round.