The inspiring presidential candidacy of Pekka Haavisto
By Kimmo Wilska, The Green League in Finland
Becoming the first European Green ever to advance to the second round and come in second for president on the national level, Pekka Haavisto made history in 2012. In the process, his inspiring campaign was a victory for green ideals espoused by progressive-minded Finns from different party backgrounds. It suggested more voters now see Greens as capable of leadership.
Ironically Haavisto’s result was unexpected after the Green Party experienced a drop in support in April 2011 parliamentary elections, going from 15 to ten seats, while the right-wing populist True Finns party, which has occasionally been compared with the Tea Party movement in the United States, won 39 seats, becoming the third largest party in Finland’s 200 seat parliament.
Haavisto’s 37.4 percent [was the] the highest total for any Green running for president anywhere in the world.
How did a Green rise to such a level, especially in such political circumstances?
With a proportional representation electoral system in Finland that allows minority parties to have a real voice in decision-making, the Greens did not necessarily need an impressive showing in the presidential elections to establish credibility among the political establishment or the electorate.
Even now the Greens are partners in the current government coalition, with Ville Niinistö serving as Minister of the Environment, and Heidi Hautala as the Minister of International Development—the second time they’ve been part of the governing coalition in Finland. On the local level, the Greens are very much a force to be reckoned with, including in the city of Helsinki, where they are actually the second-largest party in the City Council.
However on the level of the presidency, where support needed to be drawn from beyond the base of traditional Green voters, the election presented special challenges, ones that the Haavisto campaign met with a gusto few could have anticipated. In Finland, the office of President has a certain amount of authority in foreign policy together with the government, and the President serves as commander-in-chief of its defense forces. But other than this, it is generally one of moral leadership than actual political power, as day-to-day politics are the task of the 200-member Parliament and the government. Candidates run on party tickets, but once elected, the Finnish President is seen to be above day-to-day politics, and is expected to renounce all party affiliations.
Haavisto entered the race with as much international experience as any Green in the world, other than perhaps former German Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. From 1999 to 2005 Haavisto worked with the United Nations in trouble spots including the Balkans, Afghanistan, Palestine, Liberia, and Sudan. As the head of research groups in the United Nations Environment Program UNEP, he investigated the destructive environmental impact of war. From 2005 to 2007 Haavisto worked as the EU Special Representative in Sudan and Darfur and assisted in the Darfur peace talks, including as UN Senior Advisor in 2007.
In addition to this experience, a key factor was Haavisto’s personality—the pleasant manner that has helped him in his efforts to mediate in international conflicts also make him the kind of person who is easy to listen to. His grasp of the issues and ability to articulate his points of view in a manner that even his opponents can understand have won him many supporters.
Yet when the Finnish Greens held their party congress in June 2011 there were some doubts as to whether or not fielding a candidate in the 2012 presidential elections would be a particularly good idea after the party’s poor parliamentary result, and it was not unreasonable to think that taking a long shot on the presidency might not be a good use of dwindling resources, which might be better used in the municipal elections of October 2012.
On top of this, the Social Democratic Party had held the presidency for the last 30 years. The prospects of a Green consolidating the left-of-center vote seemed unlikely as the Greens had tried twice before with the well-regarded Heidi Hautala, who has served both in the Finnish Parliament and the European Parliament (and who now holds the post of Minister of International Development). While generally admired and respected for her skills and knowledge, Hautala’s share of the vote did not reach double digits in either election.
The months that followed Haavisto’s nomination in June were dominated by intense campaigning boosted by a groundswell of enthusiasm. The campaign slogan of creating a “Finland greater than its size” had popular appeal and as the first round of the election drew closer it became apparent that something unique in Finnish political history was going on. The prospect that Haavisto might get into the runoff seemed increasingly plausible. On election night, January 22, Haavisto came in second in a field of eight candidates, including ahead of the True Finns Party candidate who finished a distant fourth, and putting Haavisto in the runoff with National Coalition Party candidate Sauli Niinistö.
Haavisto’s appeal beyond the traditional green subculture was enhanced an extensive group of notable supporters, including figures from the arts, academia, and the media. His committee of supporters was chaired by well-known forensic dentist Helena Ranta, who got to know Haavisto through her work investigating the aftermaths of atrocities committed in the Balkans and elsewhere.
A flood of donations, easing the financial burden on the cash-strapped party, accompanied the enthusiasm for the Haavisto candidacy. On election night alone, the campaign received EUR 100,000. Then on January 30, another EUR 80,000 was raised by a sold out fund-raising concert featuring some of the country’s leading rock musicians at Helsinki’s 7,000 seat Ice Hall. Ultimately the campaign raised over EUR 700,000, an impressive amount in a country of only 4.4 million voters.
The second round was on February 5th. The Niinistö won the election with 62.6 percent of the vote against Haavisto’s 37.4 percent, the highest total for any Green running for president anywhere in the world.
It was suggested that some voters might shun Haavisto because he is openly gay, and a poll taken after the runoff indicated that many who voted for Niinistö admitted that they did not want a gay president. However, it is unlikely that they would have voted for any Green candidate. Haavisto and his registered partner, Ecuadorian citizen Antonio Flores, got plenty of positive attention, and it is likely that their relationship may have helped channel the backlash against the True Finns, many of whom are openly homophobic, to the Haavisto candidacy.
Haavisto also provided a source of expression for those offended by the openly racist antics of some of the True Finn members of parliament, which many Finns found to be deeply shocking.
To their credit, Haavisto’s opponents never used his orientation against him, and the fact that he had managed to establish a rapport even with hard-line Muslims in the crisis areas where he served as a mediator helped defuse arguments that being gay would hurt his standing on the global stage.
The Haavisto campaign was an unforgettable experience for everyone involved, coming as it did less than a year after a very disappointing parliamentary election. The relative success of the effort astonished most political observers, and the Finnish implications of the “Haavisto phenomenon” will undoubtedly be the topic of political and even sociological research in the years to come. Whether or not the heady Haavisto campaign will translate into electoral successes for Green candidates in future elections for local councils, the national parliament, and the European Parliament, remains to be seen. Nevertheless, there is general agreement among Finnish Greens that the campaign was worth it. Much of the campaign’s success was connecting to unusually large sections of the nation on a psychological, and dare I say spiritual level. This was not about establishing a personality cult: Haavisto treads the ground lightly when he walks and this showed in the campaign—Haavisto himself was not the fulfillment, but he made it easier for many to find something very fulfilling at an opportune moment.
Rather than promoting any specific political agendas, Haavisto’s campaign helped advance a receptiveness and open-mindedness within the Finnish nation toward a broader acceptance of green/Green values. If this means that Green candidates do well in the upcoming election cycles, then good. If it means that there will be viable candidates in other parties promoting green values, that’s all right too.
On the global level, Haavisto’s campaign was the third high profile Green presidential campaign to make it to the second round in two years. In April 2010, former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus, made it to the second round and received 27.5 percent for president of Colombia, while in October 2010 Amazon activist Marina Silva, who received 19.3 percent and almost 20 million votes in Brazil in October 2010.
Yet in both these cases, Mockus and Silva were well-known figures from outside of the party who joined to run for president and left the party afterwards. In Haavisto’s case, his roots go back to the Finnish Greens founding in 1980 and he has remained a Green ever since, becoming party chair in 1995, being elected first to the Finnish parliament in 1987 and serving as the first Green Environmental Minister in the world from 1995 to 1999.
Following the recent election from single-seat districts of Elizabeth May to the Canadian House of Commons (May 2011) and Caroline Lucas to the British House of Commons (June 2010)—and the emergence of a Green governor (Winfried Kretschmann) in the populous German state of Baden Württemberg (May 2011), Greens seem to be increasingly a party that both consolidates the largest portion of the center-left vote and appeals to other voters across political lines looking for a fresh alternative. And in achieving his impressive result, Haavisto successfully walked the fine line of being a member of a smaller party that has a transformational worldview and showing he could govern for all people.
Kimmo Wilska lives in Helsinki and has been a member since 1980 of Vihreä Liitto (Green League), the Green Party in Finland
For more information in English about the Pekka Haavisto campaign: