Bloomberg News

Niinistoe Wins First Round in Finnish Presidential Election

January 24, 2012

(Updates with final results from first paragraph.)

Jan. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Sauli Niinistoe of the pro-Europe National Coalition Party won the first round of Finland’s presidential election, garnering 37 percent in a vote affirming Finns’ support for the bloc’s single currency.

Green League’s Pekka Haavisto came second with 18.8 percent of votes and the Center Party’s Paavo Vaeyrynen, who has campaigned against the euro, had 17.5 percent, as all ballots had been counted, according to the Justice Ministry’s election website. Turnout was 72.7 percent.

The outcome suggests Finns are turning their backs on politicians that have called for the country to sever ties with the euro region as it struggles to contain its debt crisis. The shift in sentiment comes less than a year after Timo Soini led his anti-euro “The Finns” party in a fourfold surge in the parliamentary election. Soini placed fourth in today’s vote with 9.4 percent. Niinistoe is a former banker and finance minister who took Finland into the euro in 1999.

“Criticism against the euro didn’t catch on” among voters, Niinistoe, 63, said in an interview. “The anti-euro candidates didn’t get unexpectedly high votes today.”

Haavisto said he was surprised how well his Green platform had been received. “That is the secret of this campaign: Everyone is with us,” he told supporters.

PM’s Candidate

Finland, one of four remaining AAA rated euro countries, has threatened to derail efforts to solve the debt crisis, including demanding collateral to provide emergency funds to Greece. Niinistoe, a member of Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen’s National Coalition party, served as finance minister for the seven years until 2003 and helped rebuild Finland’s economy after the early 1990s recession and banking crisis. He lost in 2006 to President Tarja Halonen, who’s stepping down after a two-term limit.

Soini, who has said Greece should be allowed to default and talks of reintroducing the Finnish markka as part of a euro exit, wasn’t “disappointed” at not making it to the second round, he said in an interview with broadcaster YLE TV1.

Europe’s debt crisis is in its third year after Greece was forced to seek a bailout in 2010, followed by Ireland and Portugal. Italy and Greece have appointed former central bankers and bureaucrats as their prime ministers to push through unpopular austerity measures.

Limited Powers

In Finland, the president is the head of state, while the prime minister runs the government day to day. The president’s powers include steering foreign policy in cooperation with the government, appointing top-ranking civil servants such as the central bank governor and commanding the armed forces. Bank of Finland Governor Erkki Liikanen’s second and final term ends in July 2018 and there’s a chance his successor will be named by the new president.

The president’s ability to impact internal politics is limited and the legislative powers will be further curtailed by a constitutional amendment that comes into force on March 1.

The Center Party’s Vaeyrynen eroded Soini’s support by adopting part of his anti-euro platform. Niinistoe has said the only remedy to ending the crisis is reducing debt.

Excess debt across the developed world has been caused by a “systemic error” in values and thinking and will be corrected “once we see more selflessness than greed and more responsibility than indifference,” Niinistoe wrote on his website.

Euro Support

The rise of “The Finns” party in April reflected Finnish taxpayers’ disgruntlement over handing over cash to governments that overspent. Even so, two thirds of Finns support membership in the euro, according to a Dec. 27 poll in Helsingin Sanomat.

The winner will replace Halonen. The first woman head of state in the Nordic nation has served two consecutive terms and is barred by the constitution from seeking re-election. In 2006, she won 51.8 percent of votes to beat Niinistoe’s 48.2 percent to secure her second six-year term.

Niinistoe is married to his party’s spokeswoman Jenni Haukio, 34, a published poet. He has two sons from a previous marriage to Marja-Leena Alanko, who passed away in 1995.

Haavisto helped mediate peace in Sudan and Darfur from 2005 until 2007 as a special representative appointed by the United Nations, following in the footsteps of 2008 Nobel Peace Laureate Martti Ahtisaari, also a former president of Finland. Haavisto is one of the founding members of the Green League and lives in a registered partnership with Antonio Flores from Ecuador.

The “heavy burden” of Finland’s history of three wars during the past century has taught the nation a “hard lesson” and forged it into a peacemaker, Haavisto wrote on his website. Finland must be more active in offering help where it’s needed, he said.

--With assistance from Diana ben-Aaron and Kasper Viita in Helsinki. Editors: Jonas Bergman, Tasneem Brogger.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kati Pohjanpalo in Helsinki at kpohjanpalo@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tasneem Brogger at tbrogger@bloomberg.net


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