Finnish President Wins Landslide Re-Election in Historic Vote

By Raine Tiessalo

  Sauli Niinisto Photographer: Roni Rekomaa/Bloomberg

Sauli Niinisto Photographer: Roni Rekomaa/Bloomberg

Sauli Niinisto was re-elected as Finland’s president without recourse to a runoff — a first since the post has been settled by popular vote.

The 69-year-old former finance minister won the election with 62.7 percent backing, surpassing the 50 percent needed to avoid a second vote. His closest rival, Pekka Haavisto of the Greens, who ran against Niinisto in 2012, had support of 12.4 percent and conceded defeat, YLE said. Turnout was 66.7 percent.

“Finland is a great country — it’s the most stable country in the world,” Niinisto told his supporters in Helsinki on Sunday. “Better to be small and stable than large and fractured.”

Although at the helm of a largely ceremonial post, the president helps steer foreign policy. It is in this capacity that he has solidified his reputation as a skillful power broker, balancing Finland’s Western commitments while forging a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The two heads of state have met or spoken on the phone more than 20 times during Niinisto’s first six-year term. The Finn continued to keep an open line with its bigger neighbor even after the invasion of Crimea, and presided over the setting up of a defense hotline between Helsinki and Moscow two months ago.

He’s been able to maintain dialog throughout the crisis in Ukraine while at the same time “keeping Finland staunchly behind the EU’s sanction policies,” said Teija Tiilikainen, director of the Helsinki-based Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

That’s set to continue in light of the “strong mandate” Finns have given him, said Niinisto.

“I see no need to change our Russia policy,” he said at a press conference in Helsinki. “We differ on Crimea and East Ukraine, and the sanctions, but we’ve cleared the air on that. Beyond that are a multitude of issues neighbors must take care of.”

Domestically, one of Niinisto’s most important decisions after the election will be to appoint a new head of the Bank of Finland, who is also a member of the Governing Council of the European Central Bank. The mandate of the current governor, Erkki Liikanen, expires in July. Juhana Brotherus, an economist at housing-credit institution Hypo, says “the most obvious successor” is Olli Rehn, a bank board member and former economy minister who replaced Liikanen as Finland’s EU commissioner back in 2004. Working against Rehn, a longtime member of Prime Minister Juha Sipila’s Center Party, is the fact that Niinisto has in the past expressed his distaste for politically-charged nominations, Brotherus said.

At home, Niinisto is loved for his ability to “portray his personal life in a touching and intimate way,” said Mari K. Niemi, a political scientist and director of a research platform at the University of Vaasa. Having survived the 2004 tsunami by reportedly climbing up a utility pole with his son while on holiday in Thailand, Niinisto saw his popularity peak in November, when he announced that his second wife was expecting a child.



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