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Pekka Haavisto: It's not easy being Green

Green League candidate Pekka Haavisto - the surprise story of the last presidential election - is back in the race once again, hoping to go one better this time around.

Pekka Haavisto.
Pekka Haavisto. Image: Sebastian Dahlström

Haavisto is currently a member of the Finnish parliament, an ex-minister with a strong background in international politics and development after taking high-profile posts with both the UN and the EU. As the Green League candidate, environmental matters are at the core of his candidacy, but his aim is to break out of the Greens’ normal constituencies and win over new voters--as he did last time.

Early polls suggest that although Haavisto will once more be the main challenger to Sauli Niinistö, he has a long way to go if he is to defeat the incumbent. His chances, it seems, are not very good - but that was the case last time, too.

Ground-breaking run

The significance of Haavisto’s achievement in reaching the second round is clearly evident from the list of historical ‘firsts’ he racked up when he ran for president in 2012: He was the first openly gay candidate to reach that stage, the first Green League candidate, and the first male candidate who did not complete military service, serving a term of non-military service instead.

By the time the first round of the election was held on January 22, 2012, Haavisto had galvanised voters who wanted to stem the tide of nativist populism evident in the Finns Party’s advance in the 2011 parliamentary election.

Story continues after photo

Pekka Haavisto
Pekka Haavisto Image: Eeva Suutari

He also downplayed his green credentials at times to reach out to a broader range of voters outside 'red-green bubbles'. He received 18.8 percent of the vote, a result that put him in second place behind the National Coalition Party’s candidate Sauli Niinistö, who is running this time as an independent backed by a voters’ association.

Journalist turned politician

The second round run-off between Haavisto and Niinistö was a bridge too far for Haavisto, who lost out despite receiving more than one million votes - garnering some 37.4 percent of the votes cast.

Haavisto began reading Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki but did not complete his studies. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s he worked as a journalist and editor, first with the now-defunct culture magazine "Komposti-lehti" until 1982, and then with its successor "Suomi-lehti" until 1987.

Haavisto was a prominent activist in the Koijärvi Movement, which sprang up in 1979 to fight to preserve a bird habitat in the Häme region, and turned out to be a proving ground for several important Green Party leaders of the future. During this period, Haavisto also became editor of the Green League’s official newspaper - a role that precipitated his move into politics.

In 1987, at the age of just 29, he successfully stood for election to the Finnish parliament in the district of Helsinki; holding onto his seat for 8 years. Despite missing out on re-election in 1995, Haavisto was appointed Minister of the Environment - making political history as the first representative of a Green Party in Europe to hold a cabinet post.

Mediator and minister

In 1999, he began working for the United Nations, where he led the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in several projects including research into the use of depleted uranium in the former Yugoslav states of Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina; and an investigation into the causes of the Baia Mare ecological disaster in Romania.

He also participated in the Darfur peace talks as a special representative of the European Union. His work during this period raised his profile considerably both at home and abroad.

Haavisto returned to Finnish politics in 2007 when - after a gap of 12 years - he was elected to parliament. His growing popularity was reflected by his re-election in 2011.

Buoyed by his performance in the 2012 Presidential election, in October 2013 he was appointed Minister for International Development by Jyrki Katainen, and held onto the position in Alexander Stubb’s cabinet before he was made the Foreign Minister’s Special Representative for African Crises in 2014.

Haavisto’s main legacy is likely to be a remoulding of what Finnish politicians can be, breaking glass ceilings for Green politicians as they look to challenge the traditional parties. Whether or not he can pull off the upset of the century in beating Niinistö, his performance in 2012 made big strides towards securing that legacy.

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