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Tuula Haatainen: Nurse-turned-politician demands equal treatment

Social Democratic Party candidate Tuula Haatainen has profiled herself as a feminist candidate in the 2018 presidential elections, claiming that the current government has  increased inequality in Finland.

Tuula Haatainen.
Tuula Haatainen. Image: Sebastian Dahlström

The Social Democrats struggled to find a candidate for this year’s election, with leader Antti Rinne adamant that the party would field a candidate--but equally adamant that it wouldn’t be him.

Haatainen was the last parliamentary party representative to join the field of what are now eight candidates in the 2018 presidential elections, after several higher-profile party members, including party chair Antti Rinne, ex-party chair Jutta Urpilainen, and former parliamentary speaker Eero Heinäluoma turned down the chance.

She won the nomination in a run-off vote, beating fellow MPs Maarit Feldt-Ranta and Sirpa Paatero. The SDP is polling in second spot as the largest opposition party, but like other European Social Democrat parties Finland’s SDP has struggled to update its message and retain support.

Struggling SDP

Haatainen had previously been in the running to represent the SDP in the 2012 presidential elections, losing out to former prime minister and SDP veteran Paavo Lipponen. Lipponen went on to gain less than seven percent of the vote in the first round of voting, putting a decisive end to three decades of SDP presidencies in Finland.

The latest polls put Haatainen’s voter support going into the 2018 presidential elections at a mere two percent.

Haatainen grew up in a wooden schoolhouse on the island of Soisalo, south of Kuopio in Finland’s Lake District. She was the second of five children born to her nurse mother and teacher father.

When she was five years old, her mother fell ill with tuberculosis and was hospitalised. The fear that she would lose her mum had a dramatic effect on young Haatainen, who decided to throw herself into her studies and become a health professional herself.

Defending poorly paid workers

After studying nursing in Kuopio she moved to Helsinki to work as a surgical nurse. Her career choice opened her eyes to the realities of gender inequality in the workforce, and after penning a series of op-ed pieces demanding better salaries for employees in the service sector, the budding activist found her ideological home in Finland’s largest labour-friendly party, the Social Democrats.

Haatainen entered parliament as a reserve MP in 1996. She was appointed Education Minister in 2003-2005 and Minister of Social Affairs and Health in 2005-2007.

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Tuula Haatainen
Tuula Haatainen Image: Meeri Koutaniemi

On her campaign website, she cites her two proudest ministerial achievements during this period as her work to guarantee the universal right to daycare and afternoon care for young schoolchildren.

Key roles in municipal government

In 2007 she was chosen for a five-year term as Helsinki’s deputy mayor. Her responsibilities in this capacity extended to the capital city’s personnel and education programmes, including such things as cultural and sports activities and youth and immigration concerns.

In 2012 Haatainen became deputy director of Kuntaliitto, the umbrella advocacy organisation for Finland’s local governments.

She was re-elected as an MP in 2015, and soon after named chair of the Finnish Parliament’s social affairs and health committee--a crucial position as the government implements a major reform of social and healthcare.

"Feminist foreign policy"

Haatainen has profiled herself in the election debates as a defender of women’s rights. Among other things, she recently spearheaded a motion for a parliament floor discussion of sexual harassment, in response to the sweeping international #metoo campaign. Rumours of rampant sexism in the Finnish Parliament have swirled for years, but the critical mass that Sweden and the UK, for example, have attained to confront the problem has so far proved elusive in Finland.

In debates, Haatainen has criticised the country’s current austerity-minded leadership for allowing several segments of Finland’s famously egalitarian society to become more marginalised. She has called for what she calls a feminist foreign policy in Finland, which "would not be limited to improving women’s position, but that of all disenfranchised groups."

Stronger moral leadership

She has also called out President Sauli Niinistö for his silence in the face of growing extremism in Finland, saying that Finland must have a strong ideological leader who can stand up to racism and intolerance. She has also publically taken Niinistö to task for quietly condoning "the takeover of Finland’s welfare state by market forces".

Haatainen currently lives in a row house in eastern Helsinki with her husband, TVR unemployment insurance fund director Janne Metsämäki. Their two grown children have moved out and started lives of their own. Haatainen says she has always been a very family-focused person, and enjoys reading and long-distance running in her free time.

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