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President's NY speech: "Drama begins in a moment, results take time"

President Sauli Niinistö used his New Year’s Day speech to remind the government of the need for solidarity.

Tasavallan presidentti Sauli Niinistö ennen presidentin perinteisen uudenvuodenpuheen nauhoitusta Presidentinlinnassa Helsingissä uudenvuodenaattona 31. joulukuuta 2019.
President Sauli Niinistö delivers his traditional New Year's Day address at the Presidential palace. Image: Mikko Stig / Lehtikuva

President Sauli Niinistö tackled the politics of the day in his New Year’s speech on Wednesday, calling for governments to be more long-lasting.

Niinistö also said that the pressure of the prime minister’s position should be acknowledged and that it should encourage the government to cooperate better.

During 2019, Finland had three administrations, two of which collapsed over a government crisis. The rhythm of government politics and the style of national debate were two of the main issues that Niinistö picked up in his traditional address, which he delivered from the Presidential Palace.

Average age of government 2.5 years

According to Niinistö the pace of government politics has changed during the past decade.

"Not one government appointed since 2000 has served a full term," he observed.

Since 2003, the average age of a cabinet has been less than 2.5 years, Niinistö estimated, while in previous decades, administrations held office for an entire four-year term.

Niinistö said the current situation is not due to a more unstable parliament or a particularly unsettled political situation. He noted that premature government changes have mostly focused on the prime minister.

This was also the case at the beginning of December when ex-PM Antti Rinne stepped down, making way for Sanna Marin to take over. Rinne resigned when the second-largest coalition partner, the Centre Party, declared it had lost confidence in him over his mishandling of an industrial dispute between postal workers and their employer, state-owned Posti.

Other premiers such as Jyrki Katainen and Matti Vanhanen also stepped down before elections were due and handed over the reins to prime ministers from the same party – in their case the National Coalition and Centre parties, respectively.

A single mistake is enough

The President spoke of the political pressure that the prime minister in particular has to bear. Niinistö noted that the head of government is responsible for decisions that will not please everyone.

"If popularity or support decline at the same time, the pressure grows. A single mistake or failure could trigger it," the President declared.

He pointed out that the government should work as colleagues, together.

"What you decide together, you are responsible for together," he added.

Niinistö said that there is less emphasis on solidarity, but that it could ease the prime minister’s burden and help the government make bold decisions.

Climate goals are not actions

It is not the first time that Niinistö has reminded the government about the importance of unity. During the formal opening of Parliament in April, he said that his ears rang when the government parties behind social and health care reform abandoned their joint position and distanced themselves from each other’s policies. Just a few weeks earlier Juha Sipilä had tendered his government’s resignation when the ambitious reform scheme ran aground.

When Niinistö appointed the Antti Rinne government in June, the President said responsibility should be shared for joint decisions. At the time he noted that mutual trust also helps others develop confidence in the political system.

All the same, the Rinne government buckled after just a few months due to mistrust. Niinistö said he would like to see the longevity required for difficult decisions to be made.

"Peace to work is also needed in politics. Political drama can begin in a moment, but political results take time," he noted.

He also pointed out that while the government has stated its climate goals, goals are not actions.

Call for respectful dialogue

The President took advantage of his New Year’s Day address to express concern over the escalation of domestic discussion culture and warned that the trend could affect national unity.

"It’s a question of respect for one another, and in the final analysis about maintaining social harmony. And by so doing, our security," he cautioned.

Niinistö observed that discussants do not seek a common understanding but rather reinforce divisions. He pointed to a rise in deliberate misunderstandings and half-truths.

"Some issues should be challenged. But looking down on and underestimating others will not help resolve contentious matters."

A long-standing Finnish tradition

President Niinistö also touched on the global situation and the direction of the EU in his speech. He called on the nation to respect the right of people who care for others – nurses, teachers and police officers – to do their work in peace.

While the style of this year’s New Year’s Day speech was somewhat more relaxed than in previous years, Niinistö’s address did not break with tradition.

The first presidential New Year’s Day speech was delivered in 1935 by President P. E. Svinhufvud, who introduced the salutation that Niinistö also uses, "Citizens,".

The end of the speech is also steeped in tradition. Most presidents conclude by wishing the audience a good start to the New Year and God’s blessings. In his eighth address, Niinistö did the same.

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