Presidential Election: On The Campaign Trail

Shaking hands, holding babies, enduring rainy cold November weather. We catch up with three candidates on the Presidential election trail.

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Composite picture (L-R) Tuula Haatainen, Pekka Haavisto, Merja Kyllönen / Credit: News Now Finland

There’s nothing glamorous about canvasing for votes in Finland in November.

Just ten weeks away from the first round of voting in the presidential election, candidates are starting to push their campaigns out to potential voters.

There’s no stadiums filled with adoring supporters. No passionate rallies where thousands take to the streets to hear uplifting speeches. The reality for Finnish candidates is shopping centres, market squares, elderly care homes and railway stations where a few dozen people might turn up to shake hands, pose for a selfie, collect a leaflet or ask a question.

This weekend News Now Finland caught up with three presidential candidates on the campaign trail: the Left Alliance’s Merja Kyllönen; Green Alliance’s Pekka Haavisto; and Social Democrat Tuula Haatainen.

Haavisto In The Rain

Pekka Haavisto had it worst of all. His day started with good weather in Hyvinkää, north of Helsinki; but by the time he arrived in Tapiola it was cold and raining (“Pekka never wears a hat” one campaign worker confided).

When the downpour got heavier, volunteers wearing bright green party jackets hurried to bring the leaflets and ubiquitous basket of hard candy under cover to stop them getting soggy.

“This is the reality […] November, December, January in Finland is like this” says Haavisto.

But still, three teenagers were among a handful of people who came to talk with him, and they managed to get ten minutes with the man who wants to be their next President.

Green Alliance Presidential candidate Pekka Haavisto meets voters in Tapiola / Credit: News Now Finland

“They were very enthusiastic. Two of them were currently doing their military service and one of them was doing the civil service, and they asked about the Finnish defence, and how it should be developed, and I of course was very curious what their own experience is” explains Haavisto.

By the end of the discussion, Haavisto had invited the three young men to visit parliament, because they had never been before, and he was keen to engage them further with Finnish politics.

“This is the real benefit of going around and meeting people, because you might really meet people who then might come one day in politics” he says.

This isn’t Pekka Haavisto’s first rodeo. He ran in the 2012 presidential election as well, finishing second in the first round of voting, and eventually losing by a two-to-one margin to current President Sauli Niinistö. But most of his votes came from urban areas, and the Greens did poorly in the countryside.

That’s something that Haavisto’s 2018 campaign team has been working on since the summer, starting in smaller locations, including rural areas.  Even if they’re unlikely to suddenly vote Green, the campaign feels the effort is worth it.

“It was already June, July, August that we have started to tour around Finland. We have our own ‘Bible Belt’ in the north, we have the farmers who are very sceptical to the European Union membership and so forth. People might disagree with the views, but they appreciate very much when the candidates go around” says Haavisto.

The campaign learned something else from last time as well – his own personal style, which could kindly be described as ‘Career UN Technocrat’, has become less up-tight since 2012.

“In one way you are more relaxed because you know how the show goes basically. You get involved with the people, the people know you, they come up and say ‘hi Pekka how are you’, the style is maybe more relaxed this time” he concedes.

After braving a soaking in Tapiola, it was on to a book store for a discussion about immigration for the Haavisto campaign. Sunday was spent campaigning in countryside areas around the capital. And Monday evening has in store a glass of glöggi with supporters in Kontula.

“Finland changes also through the campaigns. When people come to meet you the discussions are there. Behind the panel debates on TV and on the radio between the candidates, it’s a process that new ideas are coming up, criticism is there […] and i think it’s very important that we as candidates take the election seriously.

Haatainen Runs for Office

Social Democrat Tuula Haatainen is fitting in a Sunday afternoon run, after spending the morning at a Parliament open day meeting potential voters. Even though the weather is bad, she says at least the air is fresh.

The Haatainen election campaign cranked into gear in Turku on Saturday, talking with members of the public in the market square. It’s a chance to listen, and talk, and sell her brand.

“People are very engaged! I was talking with them and they really ask a lot of questions, they wish me good luck, they want to take photos and then they tell their private stories” says Haatainen.

The politician, who describes herself as “a countryside girl”, grew up on an island in Central Finland – “I had to take the ferry to school and I know what the life is in the countryside” – until she went off to high school in Kuopio age 15. Later, she moved to Helsinki and worked as a nurse before starting her university studies. So she appreciates the chance to get out into countryside areas as well as the cities. “Only the timetable is the limit. You cannot go to all 300 municipalities” she laughs.

SDP Presidential candidate Tuula Haatainen poses for a photo with a baby / Credit: @haatainent Instagram

Haatainen is running an active social media campaign – there’s even a picture of her on Instagram holding a baby – but the people-to-people contacts are the most important.

“Mainly, people are starting the conversation. They start the discussion about social and health reform, whether we should join to NATO or not. They talk about the situation with pensioners, retired people, and that they are suffering with low pensions” says Haatainen.

Haatainen’s campaign has a strong message of equality which she hopes will resonate with voters in January.

“How we treat people here in Finland, it is very important for our security when we are all equal together. That kind of society is also a society that can safeguard security for all of us. And then we are stronger” Haatainen says.

Kyllönen’s European Perspective

The Left Alliance’s Merja Kyllönen had the warmest Saturday on the campaign trail, launching her election bid at a meeting of party faithful in Helsinki. But her job as an MEP takes her all over Finland meeting voters.

“I have traveled the whole three years when I have been in the European Parliament. We have these ‘Green Weeks’ [free from Brussels or Strasbourg commitments] when we are supposed to be with people in our home countries, and I have done it” says Kyllönen.

After Independence Day, the Kyllönen campaign starts four weeks of travels around Finland, split between December and January, trying to meet as many people as possible.

“It will be totally crazy going around Finland. But I love it a lot. It’s all about people, about human beings, and having that dialogue” she says.

Kyllönen reckons the central message of her campaign will resonate with Finnish voters – dialogue, peace, reducing inequality and putting a more ‘human’ face on the office of President.

“I love to work with people, and that’s the reason I talk so much about peace and humanity, because the inequality between people is a real risk for the whole world” she explains.

“And I think we can do better. For example in foreign policy if we check out the refugee issues, how we are behaving with each other, it matters always what the President says, and I think the President should be more stronger to say we should be humans, when we are working together, and when we are speaking about each other”.

President Niinistö’s Advantage

Throughout 2018, incumbent Sauli Niinistö has had a huge platform for travel and exposure in Finland thanks to the various celebrations of Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence.

While he won’t officially start campaigning until after Independence Day on 6th December, Niinistö gets a boost just thanks to the extra visibility of Suomi 100 events.

“Yes he has an advantage. We all know that. The situation in a way is not balanced for all of us” says Social Democrat Tuula Haatainen.

But she sees a way to turn that to her benefit.

“I’m a newcomer. Niinistö is already a President and Haavisto was already a candidate last time. Vanhanen has been Prime Minister. I’m new, and that makes people interested, what is this, who is this” she says.

“It’s not fair, but this is reality” says Green Alliance candidate Pekka Haavisto.

“This is of course Finland’s 100 years and the President has a lot of official possibilities to give speeches and of course meet heads of state from other countries, particularly this year. But of course we can go to situations where the President of the country cannot go, small meetings, visiting schools, rainy shopping centres […] to visit the places where people are and I feel that people are very enthusiastic about that.

The first round of voting in the Finnish Presidential election takes place on 28th January 2018.