With a career spanning five decades, Paavo Väyrynen is the only Finnish politician to have held ministerial office in every decade since the 1970s and the only candidate to have been elected an MP 11 times. He has been on the scene for most of his adult life and everyone has an opinion on him--positive and negative.
Now in the twilight of his career and up against a popular incumbent in Sauli Niinistö, his chances of winning the presidency are low, but that is not the only sort of power at stake. Väyrynen has the chance to remind everyone that even without the backing of a major party, he’s still a force to be reckoned with.
Flying solo at age 71
After unexpectedly good performances in the 2012 presidential and 2014 European elections, the Keminmaa MEP thought he pulled enough weight to make demands for a ministerial post in 2015.
Juha Sipilä, the Centre Party leader and political ingénue charged with forming a government after the 2015 election, felt differently and offered him nothing--let alone the kind of heavyweight portfolio Väyrynen craved.
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Väyrynen felt slighted by the snub, and in January 2016 he ended up withdrawing from decision-making bodies in the Centre Party and setting up his own movement called the 'Citisens' Party'--but retaining his Centre membership. That incident perhaps explains as much as anything why a 71-year-old wants to run for office yet again.
To do so without the backing of one of the big parties he had to gather supporter cards from 20,000 citizens. With the help of some familiar diatribes against the media and an advertising blitz, he passed the threshold with a week to spare, and the old warhorse was back in the game.
Cold War worldview
Väyrynen was first elected to parliament in 1970, and by 1977 he was foreign minister while still in his early thirties. In 1980 he became leader of the Centre Party with the blessing of Cold War strongman president Urho Kekkonen, who had previously led the party, and Väyrynen held sway in the party until 1990.
His politics are informed by that Cold War outlook. In 1988 he wrote a doctoral thesis in which the central conclusion was that the Soviet Union would last forever. Within seven years he was opposing Finnish entry into the European Union, and has remained on that Eurosceptic policy bent ever since—even while working as an MEP himself.
"He thinks that Finland is better able to handle its relationship with Russia alone, rather than through the European Union, as Finland has done for the last 22 years," says researcher and journalist Erkka Railo of the Mustread website.
Resisting the 'liberal takeover'
In 2016 Väyrynen announced that liberals were dominating the party, and were neglecting its agrarian roots. If he manages to win more votes than Matti Vanhanen, the liberal former PM who is the official Centre Party candidate, the party and Vanhanen will be acutely embarrassed. Railo says Väyrynen is more or less viewed as ‘a nuisance’ by the other parties.
"It’s like he has been a vocal critic of other politicians for quite a while, and of his own party the Centre Party as well. And he's been given quite a bit of media time because of his outspoken views. But at the end of the day, he doesn't have a large enough base to really change anything—but it's large enough for him to cause all kinds of trouble for other parties."
In the 2012 presidential election he placed third, only just around one percentage point behind the urban, liberal Green Pekka Haavisto in the first round, reminding his many detractors that he could not yet be dismissed as yesterday’s man. This time round a definition of success is tricky too, but 'causing trouble for other parties' might well cover it.