Janne Strang Editorial: President Niinistö’s Election Non-Campaign

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö might not have officially kicked off his campaign for a second term, but it has already started.

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Incumbent Finnish President Sauli Niinistö / Credit: The Office of the President of the Republic of Finland

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö plays the role of international statesman this week when he meets the Russian and US Deputy Foreign Ministers in Helsinki, where the pair are having talks to try and repair the fragile relationship between their two countries.

But while Niinistö refuses to officially kick off his re-election campaign, it has already been running at full steam for months.

As opposed to the well known parliamentary dynamic that usually guarantee the opposition parties a favourable election result, it is nearly impossible for a presidential candidate to win over the incumbent.

Acting Finnish presidents usually enjoy a steady approval rating among voters and Sauli Niinistö is no exception to the rule – polls of late put him at 69% to 72% which would see him continuing in office without a second round run-off.

Mr Niinistö, however, isn’t taking anything for granted, but has employed a set of tactics to cement his favourable position.

New Campaign Structure

It is customary for a newly elected president to renounce his party membership as a symbolic gesture of taking on the task of leader of an entire, diverse nation. In the beginning of summer, Mr Niinistö took the role of “The People’s President” to new levels of solemnity when he announced his bid for a second term, not as a candidate for his former National Coalition Party (NCP), but for a custom-made independent movement called SN2 with the sappy and safe slogan “I love this country”.

Distancing himself from his party is a convenient way to avoid answering about everyday politics and what the government is up to – including hard-wrought questions about health care reform and slashing social benefits in the budget. Instead, and as opposed to his running mates, Mr Niinistö can maintain his perceived position as hovering above petty issues and focusing on the big picture, foreign and security policy, which are the prime mandates of the president.

Short Campaign Period

Further setting himself apart from the competition, Mr Niinistö declared during the summer that he would not be participating in official election debates before Independence Day (December 6th), which, when you think about the Christmas and New Year holiday season, would shrink the campaign time down to only a few weeks.

Strong criticism from both his fellow candidates as well as the press made Mr Niinistö reconsider, and promise some attention to the presidential race already in October.

Keeping the public campaign short and focused is by no means a bad idea.  No-one, save a few fringe candidates, has anything to gain by a lengthy and repetitive race, but it would be a mistake to think Mr Niinistö hasn’t already begun moulding the minds of voters on his own terms.

Niinistö’s PR Stunts

It’s hardly only his love of basketball that brought him to bathe in the floodlights and audience’s love for Finland’s Susijengi – Wolfpack – men’s national team during the recent Eurobasket tournament in Helsinki.

And it was hardly his mere love of literature that made the president conduct an oddly conceived public interview with famed American author Paul Auster during his promotion visit to Helsinki last week.

As the event began with a casacade of applause, Mr Niinistö turned to Mr Auster and noted something to the effect of “I think they recognise you”. The author, suddenly finding himself an unwitting prop in a stealth rally for the Finnish presidency, dryly answered “I think they recognise you, too”.

Recently, election success has come to candidates who were perceived as outsiders of the political game – think Donald Trump in the USA, and Emmanuel Macron in France. And so it is with some amusement we continue to watch Mr Niinistö’s attempts to simultaneously elevate and deprecate his privileged position.