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Presidential hopefuls in final sprint

Finns go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president. Read on for an overview of the candidates vying for the job.

Karikatyyrit presidenttiehdokkaista.
Image: Tuomas Tuppurainen

These six men and two women -- half-a-dozen from government parties and a pair from the opposition -- have a colourful array of backgrounds and views, seemingly including a candidate to suit anyone.

Most opinion polls indicate that Sauli Niinistö of the conservative National Coalition Party has a chance to win the election outright by capturing more than half of the vote in the first round. If so, he would be the first to do so since the two-stage direct presidential election model was adopted in 1994.

If the election goes to a runoff on February 5 and there are no dramatic changes in the candidates’ support, Niinistö’s most likely opponent would seem to be either Timo Soini of the Finns Party, Paavo Väyrynen of the Centre or Pekka Haavisto of the Green League.

Finland’s next head of state may well be a centre-right man – and it is hardly surprisingly that voters would seek a change after 12 years under the lead of a left-leaning woman from the SDP.

Tarja Halonen, who steps down on March 1, was the nation’s first woman president, and its third head of state after the 25-year rule of Urho Kekkonen. Since Kekkonen’s autocratic regime, there have steady efforts to shift powers away from the presidency toward the Parliament and government.

The latest amendment to the constitution, which was approved in October and takes effect in March, further chipped away at presidential powers, stipulating that the prime minister is solely responsible for EU affairs and represents the country at EU summits. The rights of the president to make high-ranking appointments have also been reined in.

Few sparks of disagreement

Besides ceremonial duties and serving as a global figurehead for the country, this primarily leaves Finland’s 12th president to direct non-European foreign policy. Yet, with few dramatic ideological differences in this area, the candidates have spent plenty of time debating issues where the president has no power except as an opinion leader. There have been few real sparks of policy disagreement in the long string of debates so far, so voter choice may well come down to factors of personality.

YLE opened its online candidate selection programme or ‘election machine’ (in Finnish) in mid-December, when the list of candidates was made official. Let’s take a glance at the backgrounds, interests and priorities of the candidates, in alphabetical order.

Meet the candidates

Paavo Arhinmäki (Left Alliance), MP since 2007, Party chair since 2009, Minister for Culture, Sport and Equality Issues, Helsinki City councillor since 2001, last candidate to join the race, most popular candidate so far among users of Helsingin Sanomat’s online election guide.

Key issues: Welfare of disadvantaged in Finland, youth, secularism, gender-neutral marriage, environment. Strongly opposes NATO membership and a tighter EU.

Personal: Turned 35 on December 13. Arhinmäki, who married on January 7, plans to take paternity leave after his first child is born later in the month. Did civilian national service instead of military conscription, vegetarian, enjoys football, hip-hop & Britpop, cycling. Studied political science but has not earned a degree; little or no foreign policy experience.

Eva Biaudet (Swedish People’s Party), former MP (1991-2006), deputy party chair and leader of parliamentary group, Minister of Health and Social Services (1999-2000, 2002-03), OSCE Special Representative on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings (2006-09), Ombudsman for Minorities in Finland (2010-), member of the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues, recipient of 2011 anti-slavery award from UN Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Key issues: Human rights, particularly related to children, women, refugees and the Swedish-speaking minority, tolerance, transparency, gender-neutral marriage. No to NATO for now.

Personal: 50, married, four children. Studied law but did not complete her degree, which made her appointment as Minorities Ombudsman controversial.

Sari Essayah (Christian Democrats), MEP since 2009, MP 2003-07 (failed to win re-election), party secretary 2007-09.

Key issues: Social conservatism, opposes abortion, gender-neutral marriage and euthanasia, Palestinian UN membership, Finnish NATO membership and a tighter EU.

Personal: 44, born in Finland to a Finnish mother and Moroccan father, married with two children, master’s degree in business. Race-walking world champion 1993, European champion 1994, ended competitive career in 1996 but remains active in sports at the organisational level.

Pekka Haavisto (Green League), MP (1987-95, 2007-), Environment Minister (1995-99), the world’s first Green minister in a national government, party chair (1993-95), chair of European Green Party 2000-06. Took part in Darfur peace talks as EU Special Representative in Sudan (2005-07). Led UN Environment Programme missions to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Romania, Liberia and others.

Key issues: Conflict resolution, tolerance, environment, gender-neutral marriage. Favours a strong EU, firmly opposes Finnish NATO membership.

Personal: 53, first openly gay presidential candidate, in registered partnership with an Ecuadoran man since 2002. Enjoys substantially more support among women than men. Did civilian national service and took part in the landmark Koijärvi environmental protest in 1979. Studied political science but did not earn a degree.

Paavo Lipponen (Social Democratic Party), Finland’s longest consecutively-serving prime minister (1995-2003), also Speaker of Parliament (2003-07), MP (1983-87, 1991-2007), party chair (1993-2005).

Key issues: EU unity, social egalitarianism, status of Swedish language in Finland. Door to NATO membership should be kept open.

Personal: 70, married to Social Democratic MP Päivi Lipponen, four children (one from his first marriage, one from her first marriage), master’s degree in international relations. Was frequently tipped for a high-ranking EU post that never materialised. Seen as a potential challenger to Niinistö but popular support has remained surprisingly low, partly perhaps because there are so few differences between the two long-time government partners. Lost some credibility by serving as lobbyist/consultant for the Russian-German gas pipeline project Nord Stream in 2008. Enjoys swimming, literature and opera.

Sauli Niinistö (National Coalition Party), Finland’s longest-serving finance minister (1996-2003), deputy prime minister (1995-2001), Minister of Justice (1995-96), party chair (1994-2001), chair of European Democratic Union (1998-2002), chair of Ecofin Council and Euro Group (1999), second-round presidential candidate (2006), Speaker of Parliament (2007-11), MP (1987-, 2007-11), vice president of the European Investment Bank (2003-07), chair of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development 1999-2003.

Key issues: Fiscal austerity, lower taxation, competitiveness, EU unity. Believes the presidential right to pardon prisoners should be revoked. Considered the most pro-NATO candidate.

Personal: 63, married to NCP communications director Jenni Haukio, two children from his first marriage, formerly engaged to MP and later Minister of Culture Tanja Karpela, uncle of Green League chair and Environment Minister Ville Niinistö, worked as a lawyer in Turku and Salo, chair of the Football Association of Finland since 2009, enjoys roller-blading.

Timo Soini (Finns Party - opposition), MP (2003-2009, 2011-), MEP (2009-11). A leader of the populist Finnish Rural Party in the early 1990s; founded the Finns Party on its ruins in 1995, has led the party since 1997. Presidential candidate, 2006. Earned nation’s largest personal vote total in 2011 parliamentary election.

Key issues: Welfare of disadvantaged in Finland, pulling Finland out of EU and euro. Opposes NATO membership, Swedish language requirement in schools, abortion, gender-neutral marriage and euthanasia. Favours negotiating with Russia about return of ceded areas of Karelia.

Personal: 49, married, two children, joined Finland’s tiny Roman Catholic Church in 1998 after a visit to Ireland, active supporter of London football team Millwall FC. Master’s degree in political science. Seen as jovial, populist and relatively moderate but reluctant to rein in extremist anti-immigrant elements in the party he founded.

Paavo Väyrynen (Centre Party - opposition) MP (1970-2003, 2007-2011, failed to gain re-election), MEP (1995-2007), presidential candidate (1988, 1994), party chair (1980-90). Originally seen as a protégée of President Urho Kekkonen, he became minister of education at age 29 (1975-76), followed by stints as labour minister (1976-77), foreign minister (1977-82, 1983-87, 1991-93), deputy prime minister (1983-87), minister of foreign trade and development (2007-11) – thus serving as a government minister in five decades. Filibustered against Finnish EU membership in 1994.

Key issues: Euroscepticism, non-alignment, rural issues, sustainability, opposes consumerism, globalisation, and euthanasia. Longest experience in Russo-Finnish relations; claims to have known Vladimir Putin personally for 20 years, favours negotiating with Russia about return of ceded areas of Karelia. No to NATO for now, but door should be kept open.

Personal: 65, married, three children, doctorate in political science, docent at the University of Lapland, author of about 20 books, seen as a shrewd, stubborn politician who has survived decades of scandals and media furores. Draws much of his support from northern and eastern Finland.

Who can vote?

Voting in the presidential elections is open to Finnish citizens who are 18 years of age by election day. Those eligible to vote have received election information cards by post stating their nearest polling station. Just over 4.4 million Finns are eligible to vote.

Official election information in English

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