A fresh poll from Finland's local government advocacy group asking Finnish residents to rank the country's 12 past and present presidents suggests that Finnish Presidents Urho Kekkonen, Sauli Niinistö and Mauno Koivisto are held in the highest regard among Finland's residents.
Over 1,000 survey respondents were asked to answer the question: "Which three of Finland's 12 presidents do you hold in the highest regard?"
Urho Kekkonen, who served as the eighth Finnish President for over a quarter of a century – from 1956 to 1982 – took first place. This is because close to half (49 percent) of the respondents named Kekkonen as one of their top three. The Centre Party strongman continued his predecessor's policy of active diplomacy with the Communist Bloc during his astounding five terms in office, while at the same time steering Finland towards deeper European integration.
Current President Sauli Niinistö, first elected in 2012 and now seeking re-election for a second term, was not far behind, gaining a mention in the top three from 45 percent of the survey respondents. He is Finland's first centre-right National Coalition Party candidate to serve in the office of president.
Third place (35 percent) went to Mauno Koivisto, who served as the ninth President of Finland from 1982 to 1994. Social Democrat Koivisto wrangled Finland's tricky diplomatic relations during the Cold War era. He passed away in May of 2017 at the age of 93, and his state funeral attracted tens of thousands of mourners.
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Twelve presidents in 100 years
Tarja Halonen, Finland's first woman president, who served from 2000 to 2012 as Finland's 11th President, received a vote for the top three from 30 percent of the survey respondents. Her two terms in office were marked by high popularity ratings and high-profile work on human rights issues.
Finland's sixth president, Baron C. G. E. Mannerheim who served from 1944 to 1946, came in fifth on the survey's ranking, with 23 percent of the vote. Marshal Mannerheim preceded his presidential term with six years of war-time duty as Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Defence Forces. In a 2004 Yle survey, he was voted the greatest Finn of all time.
Martti Ahtisaari, Finland's 10th President from 1994 to 2000, came in sixth with 21 percent of the vote. Ahtisaari played a prominent role in resolving conflicts in Namibia, Indonesia, Kosovo and Iraq before, during and after his presidential term. His work in conflict resolution earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.
The first four presidents of the independent Finnish republic, K.J. Ståhlberg, Lauri K. Relander, P.E. Svinhuvud and Kyösti Kallio all ended up at the tail-end of the ranking; although this does not mean that their work is not valued. The poll's sponsor, the Foundation for Municipal Development, points out that the younger generation may simply not be as familiar with their achievements. The fact that the four most recent presidents were voted into the poll's top six positions supports this.
Young people admire Halonen and Ahtisaari
While Kekkonen and Niinistö were equally ranked among both men and women, there were clear gender differences in support for Halonen and Koivisto.
Every fifth male survey respondent named Halonen to his top three, while two out of every five female respondents included her in their best picks. Men were more likely to include the names of Ryti, Mannerheim and Paasikivi in their rankings than women.
Among the younger survey respondents, regard for Halonen and Ahtisaari was higher. Among people under 35, support for Halonen was particularly high. For people over 60 years of age, Kekkonen and Niinistö were held in the highest regard.
On the political spectrum, supporters of the current centre-right government valued Niinistö (68 percent) and Kekkonen (60 percent) most, while survey respondents identifying themselves with Finland's opposition political parties supported Halonen (45 percent) more.
The poll interviewed 1,016 respondents between the ages of 18 and 75 from all corners of Finland, with the exception of the Åland Islands. It was commissioned by Finland's Foundation for Municipal Development and carried out between December 1 and 5 of 2017 by the pollster Kantar TNS. Results have a margin of error that is less than three percent.