Sauli Niinistö, 63, is Finland's 12th President, after defeating Pekka Haavisto by a wide margin of 62.6% to 37.4%
Rahvusvahelised uudised 06 Feb 2012  EWR
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Turnout was disappointingly low at 68.8%

Helsingin Sanomat
With all the votes in and counted, Finland has a new President from the National Coalition Party.

Sauli Niinistö, 63, a former Finance Minister, party leader, and Speaker of Parliament, defeated Pekka Haavisto (Greens) by a margin of 62.6% to 37.4% and becomes the first non-Social Democrat head of state in Finland since 1982.

On a bitterly cold election day, the turnout fell by around four points from the first round to hit just 68.8%, the lowest figure since 1950.

To some extent the low turnout on Sunday (36.6% had already voted in advance) was a climatic phenomenon, but it is clear that in certain areas of the country neither of the two finalists met with the approval of those sections of the electorate who had lost their candidate in the first round.

Niinistö, who was the defeated candidate when Tarja Halonen won her second term six years ago, and who had been the hot ante-post favourite throughout the campaign, received a solid mandate of 1.8 million of the rather more than 2.8 million votes cast, but with two pro-Europe, pro-tolerance candidates in the frame, it was clear that there would be a good many stay-at-homes, particularly in the north and east of the country.

They can be found from the Centre Party and Finns Party supporters, whose eurosceptic candidates Paavo Väyrynen and Timo Soini fell at the first hurdle.

However, it is also likely that a fair number of Social Democrats chose not to vote for either alternative in a run-off that was exceptional in that it was not a direct left-right contest, but more of a battle between conservative and liberal views, with Haavisto's openly gay sexual orientation one obvious but downplayed aspect of the campaign.

Some analysts also cited Niinistö's big lead throughout the campaign as a factor curbing voter enthusiasm across the board - this year's runoff was a great deal more clear-cut than the 51.8% to 48.2% of Halonen's win over Niinistö in 2006, or the 51.6% to 48.4% in her favour against Esko Aho of the Centre Party in 2000.

Haavisto's contribution to the contest cannot be underestimated, even in defeat.

By outperforming the nationalist and eurosceptic candidates in the first round and amassing a formidable support group, particularly among young liberals and in the social media, Haavisto shifted the debate towards values and human rights issues, and his million votes are not likely to be wasted, either in subtly shaping Niinistö's approach to his new position or in encouraging the Greens in subsequent election battles.

In the view of some, simply by being in the fray to the end Pekka Haavisto reversed the apparent swing towards a more nationalist, populist, and more intolerant mindset in Finnish politics and daily life as manifested in the April 2011 parliamentary elections.

Even though Finland elected a female head of state (twice), few could have imagined twelve or even six years ago that a Green MP - even one with some useful UN appointments on his résumé - living in a registered partnership with another man could be a viable candidate for the office.

Things have certainly changed, and it is greatly to Haavisto's credit that he won over many doubters by his assured and conciliatory performance on the campaign trail.

Niinistö nonetheless beat Haavisto comfortably in all areas of the country with the exception of the autonomous Åland Islands, where Haavisto was victorious in a very low turnout of only 56%, and in Helsinki, where the two men were evenly matched, with barely 1,000 votes between them out of nearly 350,000 cast.

This last also sets up a delicious situation going forward to the autumn's municipal elections, as the National Coalition Party (29.2%) and Greens (23.2%) were already rivals for control of the capital four years ago.

Speaking to his supporters after the win, Niinistö recognised the fact that there were differing opinions at large in the country as a whole, and reiterated his hope that he could be a president for the entire nation.

Sauli Niinistö becomes the first President of Finland to be drawn from the ranks of the moderate conservative National Coalition Party since J.K. Paasikivi left office in 1956.

His election ushers in a new era for many in this country, with the Prime Minister (Jyrki Katainen) and titular head of state taken from the National Coalition Party, albeit that Niinistö will be formally obliged to hand in his party membership card before taking office.

Finland's President no longer enjoys the same sweeping powers exercised for example by the long-serving Urho Kekkonen (in office from 1956-1981), but even after constitutional changes, the holder of the office takes a considerable role in directing non-EU foreign policy in collaboration with the government of the day, as well as being an important shaper of public opinion at home and an ambassador of Finland in the wider world.
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