Sauli Niinistö Wins Re-election In Historic First Round Vote

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö on stage in Helsinki as first results are announced / Credit: News Now Finland

Finnish president Sauli Niinistö has won a comfortable re-election this evening, after securing 62.7% of the vote in a race he lead from the start.

His closest rival was Green Alliance candidate Pekka Haavisto who scored just 12.4%. Haavisto came second to Niinistö in the 2012 presidential election and went through to a second round runoff at that time, but history wasn’t going to repeat itself in 2018.

Composite picture of campaign posters for Finnish president Sauli Niinistö / Credit: News Now Finland

Niinistö’s commanding victory means that for the first time since Finland introduced the current presidential election system in 1994, a candidate has won in the first round of voting by securing more than 50% of the popular vote.

President Niinistö’s win likely signals more of the same when it comes to Finnish foreign and security policy, areas where the Finnish president takes the lead.

“I think the people in Finland they are so solidly backing up Sauli Niinistö’s foreign policy line, and also the personal Sauli Niinistö, his charisma and leadership” says Justice Minister Antti Häkkänen.

“I think there was two or three candidates who was really forcing protectionism and not the international line which has been in Finland for decades, and that is why the people have now spoken, the line that President Niinistö is carrying on, is an international Western-minded line. It is not a Russian-minded line” he tells News Now Finland.

Pekka Haavisto 2018 presidential campaign poster in Helsinki / Credit: News Now Finland

And The Runner Up Is…

The good news for Pekka Haavisto’s campaign is that he came second. The bad news for Pekka Haavisto’s campaign is that he came second. Again.

“The situation before the election campaign was a bit different than six years ago. The standing president is very popular here in Finland. Many parties had difficulties to find their own candidates” explains Green Alliance leader Tuoko Aalto.

The Greens also see that voters were happy to stick with Sauli Niinistö as president because he represents continuity, especially in areas of foreign policy, and because he has fostered continued cordial relations with the Russians.

“I think because the situation globally is moving a lot, there is a lot of turbulence, a lot of changes happening in the global view. That leads to the fact that people here in Finland they want to keep some continuity line in foreign policy. They want to feel security. And this is maybe the biggest reason why people voted in this election for Sauli Niinistö” Aalto tells News Now Finland.

Although he came second, Haavisto was the biggest loser of the night in terms of actual votes cast. Directly comparing Haavisto’s first round vote tallies from 2012 and 2018, he lost more than 200,000 votes.

The party has been riding a ‘Green wave’ recently – a play on the name of new party leader Touko Aalto – scoring notable local election victories in Jyväskylä, outside their traditional southern urban strongholds. And in parliamentary surveys they’ve peaked as Finland’s notional third most popular party.

This presidential election wasn’t meant to be for the Greens, but they have a potential vote earner waiting in the wings in the form of former party leader (and coincidentally nephew of Sauli Niinistö) Ville Niinistö who remains very popular, especially in southern cities. In a recent conversation he wouldn’t be drawn on whether he had presidential aspirations, but said he needed a rest after six years running the party. That doesn’t rule out a 2024 bid for the presidency, a move which could be very popular with Green Party supporters around the country.

Composite picture of Paavo Väyrynen (L) and Laura Huhtasaari (R) / Credit: News Now Finland

Battle For Third Place

Eight candidates in total contested the election, and Niinistö’s win was never in doubt. Similarly, Haavisto had been a strong contender for second place finish.

The real battle however was further down the ballot where former Foreign Minister Paavo Väyrynen was locked in a bitter duel with Finns Party candidate Laura Huhtasaari, each fighting for the right wing vote.

This was Väyrynen’s fourth bid to become president. On three previous occasions he was the Centre Party candidate, but this time he quit the party and formed his own independent organisation which gathered more than 20,000 signatures to get his name on the ballot. More than anything else, he ran an anti-Niinistö campaign; but he also railed against the EU and what he says is the increasing militarization of the 28-member block.

Laura Huhtasaari has only been a member of parliament for three years, but spearheaded a populist campaign that called for Finland to reassert its sovereignty from the EU and put up border posts to stop ‘terrorists’ (sic) from entering the country. The creationist, who is also a climate change skeptic, had used strong imagery in her campaign to get across her anti-immigrant message.

With both candidates trying to attract the right wing vote, they remained neck-and-neck in the polls right up until all the votes were counted. In the end, Huhtasaari edged a win, with 6.9% to Väyrynen’s 6.2%.

Huhtasaari claimed the result as a victory, but she lost almost 80,000 votes from Foreign Minister Timo Soini’s 2012 Finns Party presidential bid; and her party faithful had been talking up the chances of a surprise second place finish right up until the results were announced. There would be no shock surge for the former teacher – who has recently been accused of plagiarising her master’s degree thesis.

In media interviews after the results were announced, Väyrynen says he plans to return to Finnish politics in the spring, and re-take the parliamentary seat that he conceded when he became an MEP. In theory this could be permitted, but the Lapland constituency seat was won by Väyrynen when he was a Centre Party member, and it was then given to another Centre Party politician. Now that Väyrynen has quit the Centre Party it’s unlikely that party bosses would give up his old seat without a fight – especially given the government’s slim majority in parliament.

Composite picture of Tuula Haatainen (L) and Matti Vanhanen (R)

Humiliating Slump For Two Traditional Parties

The election results capped an embarrassing campaign for two of Finland’s biggest traditional parties, that have dominated politics over the last half century.

Tuula Haatainen from the Social Democrats got just 3.3% of the vote after a campaign that tried to focus the electorate on issues like equality and values. The former Education Minister was picked by her party after they struggled to find other willing candidates, and her lack of direct foreign policy experience was laid bare when the media spotlight was turned on her. Haatainen’s personal style often came across as robotic, and simply didn’t connect with voters.

She now has the ignominy of getting the lowest ever percentage of any Social Democrat presidential candidate. Even worse than the previous low of 6.7% which former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen got when he made a run for the presidency in 2012.

And this comes from a party with a sterling recent history in the president’s palace. The last three Finnish presidents were social democrats, stretching back to Mauno Koivisto (1982 – 1994); Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Martti Ahtisaari (1994 – 2000); and Finland’s first female president Tarja Halonen (2000 – 2012).

After two disasterous presidential campaigns, the social democrats need to go back to the drawing board to figure out why they’re unable to make much impact with voters.

The Centre Party don’t need to go back to the drawing board to work out what went wrong. Their candidate Matti Vanhanen was dubbed the ‘Jeb Bush’ of this campaign, and got soundly beaten by a popular centre-right incumbent and Paavo Väyrynen, who infuriated and perplexed the Centre Party in equal measure by essentially stealing a huge chunk of Vanhanen’s potential voters. All this despite Vanhanen being named the Centre Party presidential candidate almost 18 months ago, in a futile bid to stop Väyrynen from running.

“We knew how difficult it was to turn people’s minds, and we did not succeed” says Matti Vanhanen.

Now, Vanhanen tells News Now Finland that he’s not sure what his next moves will be, apart from a brief holiday in Lapland in February. The former Prime Minister says he’s not even sure if he will stay on in parliament to fight the next election.

“I will remember this 4%. It is the result. I have been active in politics 40 years and some day I will also think how I will retire and have a better life. I have not even decided will I run to parliament after one year. I will continue now in parliament and somewhere during this spring or the beginning of next autumn I will decide will I run again to parliament or not. I don’t know it yet” he says.

Composite picture of Nils Torvalds (L) and Merja Kyllönen (R) / Credit: News Now Finland

Last But Not Least…

Trailing the rest of the pack were politicians from two of Finland’s smallest parties.

The Swedish People’s Party candidate Nils Torvalds – father of Linux inventor Linus Torvalds – raised a lot of money from big foundations, but ultimately couldn’t deliver votes. He got just 1.5% of the vote and lost almost 38,000 votes from his party’s 2012 presidential bid.

Torvalds was the only candidate to strongly advocate for Finland to join NATO. That might have proved too much disruption for conservative Finnish voters, and most probably Torvalds voters cast their ballots instead for Niinistö, who undoubtedly enjoyed a boost as the sitting president.

Merja Kyllönen from the Left Alliance had been doing well in the latest opinion polls – some had her ahead of the Social Democrats even – but on the night managed an even 3% of the votes. That’s down a massive 78,000 votes from her party’s 2012 presidential election result but party leader Li Andersson says the Left Alliance is satisfied with the campaign they ran.

“We are not disappointed. We are really happy about the campaign, we are happy about the themes she brought to the debates. And we also knew that the numbers will be lower than our party has in normal general elections” Andersson tells News Now Finland.

“I think the result says a lot about the respect that people have for Sauli Niinistö and the work he has done as president. His profile in these elections, he wasn’t really right wing, he wasn’t left wing either. I think he was very careful, didn’t really make any new standpoints on any controversial issues when it comes to foreign policy” says Andersson.

“I think for many, Sauli Niinistö was a vote for continuation of what has been” she adds.