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Finnish Contest No More Between Right and Left

HELSINKI, Feb 3 2012 (IPS) - In an uncharacteristically lively election campaign in this nation of five million people, Finns head for the polls in a second round of voting Sunday to elect a new president.

None of the eight presidential candidates emerged as clear winner in the first round of voting last month, hence the second round.

Sauli Niinistö, 64, of the conservative National Coalition Party who was tipped as favourite won 37 percent of the vote n the first round while Pekka Haavisto, 53, of the Green League caused a major upset by unexpectedly coming second with 18.8 percent.

With intensive use of social media such as Facebook, flashmob stunts and live music concerts, this year’s campaign has been more lively than previous ones. But voter turnout of 72 percent is still lower than the 74 percent six years ago.

The contest in the second round is now between Niinistö, a former finance minister and speaker in parliament in the last government, and Haavisto, former development cooperation minister and special EU representative to Darfur, Sudan. Niinistö lost in the second round in 2006 when outgoing President Tarja Halonen won her second term.

Polls published here Wednesday indicate that Niinistö is the clear frontrunner predicted to win 62 percent of the vote while Haavisto is expected to take 38 percent.

Jan Sundberg, professor of political science in the University of Helsinki says that the gap between the candidates will narrow in the final stages, though he concedes that Haavisto is the underdog.

“Niinistö has more resources and more people working for him, so it is clear that Haavisto is the underdog, added to the fact that he is gay which is a problem for most conservative and older people,” Sundberg told IPS.

Haavisto has been living in a registered partnership with an immigrant from Ecuador. For some voters this may be a problem, but it never developed into an election issue. His vote of nearly 19 percent far exceeded the overall national support for his party.

The contest between Haavisto and Niinistö brings the curtain down on 30 years of domination of the Social Democratic Party in Finnish presidential politics, starting with Mauno Koivisto in 1982 and followed by Nobel laureate Martti Ahtisaari and Tarja Halonen, the first female president in 2000.

The Social Democrats candidate, former prime minister Paavo Lipponen, faced a stunning defeat, picking up only 6.7 percent of the vote in the first round. This surprised people even outside his party.

An equally surprising early exit in the race was former foreign minister and Eurosceptic Paavo Väyrynen of the Centre Party, who was earlier tipped to win second place but was edged out in a last-minute surge for Haavisto.

Political analysts here say Väyrynen’s vigorous campaign, coupled with his anti-European stand, drew voters away from the anti-immigrant and populist True Finns Party whose phenomenal success in last year’s parliamentary elections rocked the Finnish political establishment. The party leader and presidential candidate Timo Soini finished in fourth place with only 9 percent of the vote.

Hopes for a female candidate to continue outgoing Tarja Halonen’s 12-year presidency were extinguished in the first round when the only two female candidates, Eva Biaudet of the Swedish People’s Party (RKP) and Sari Essayah of the Christian Democrats got only 2.7 and 2.5 percent respectively.

Political analysts here have observed that Sunday’s vote will be historic in the sense that for the first time it has not shaped into a battle between left and right as in all previous direct-election presidential campaigns.

Until now, the second round of voting has always pitted a candidate of the Social Democrats or a common champion of the left against a representative of the non-socialist camp.

The Finnish president no longer has a say in domestic policy which is mainly the responsibility of the parliamentary government. Constitutional amendments within the last decade have whittled down the powers of the president. Presidential powers are now limited to foreign policy and defence, exercised in conjunction with the government.

The two candidates do not differ significantly in their foreign policy views, according to Sundberg.

Haavisto, says Sundberg, is as a member of the Green Party more concerned with international environmental issues, conflict resolution and development assistance. Niinistö is more of an establishment figure whose views on Finland’s relations with the European Union are more in line with the current government.

“Whatever the case, the candidates are not going to be elected based on their foreign policy views but rather on their profiles and personal issues and what people think about how they can fit into the position,” says Sundberg.

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