When the deadly Indian Ocean Tsunami struck in 2004, Sauli Niinisto was vacationing in Khao Lak, Thailand. Probably yearning for some time for himself and his family after seven years as one of the most admired finance ministers of his country, Finland, he had taken his two young sons along with him. As the waves swelled, Niinisto‘s elder son was in the hotel and climbed to the roof of the building to avoid danger. But there was no high ground to move to for Sauli and younger son Mathias, who were outside the building at the time. Niinisto climbed the nearest utility pole with his son as the gigantic flood swirled around them, and stayed there until the water receded. Now, those same tenacity and survival instincts have helped Sauli Niinisto become the president of his country in his second attempt, and the first conservative to claim that office in more than half a century.
As Europe continues to face economic turmoil, Niinisto’s election is seen as yet another example of conservative economic ideas gaining popularity when large segments of the population face hardship. Though Finland’s economy is one of the healthiest in the region, it too has had its own set of woes. Mobile telephone manufacturer Nokia, the largest Finnish enterprise, has seen its global market share decline by more than half, as the company struggles to gain a toehold in the fast growing smart-phone segment. Though Finland continues to be one of the hotbeds for innovative technology products and services, the popular Angry Birds mobile phone game being the latest example, economic growth is sluggish and unemployment is expected to top 8% this year.
As the Economist describes it, Niinisto’s victory is also seen as ‘a win for the euro’ in Europe. As in other countries in the region, there are heated debates within Finland about euro-zone fiscal policies and some still worry about the survival of the euro. Those countries that have retained fiscal health through conservative policies, such as Finland, Germany and The Netherlands, have repeatedly baulked at the cost of bailing out other countries, and they been vocal in criticizing the fiscal profligacy of the troubled economies in the region. Finnish politicians who are skeptical of the common currency, including Niinisto’s opponent in the presidential elections, have gained popularity in recent years. Niinisto, a strong euro supporter who prepared the groundwork and oversaw Finland’s entry into the euro-zone in 2002 as finance minister, is in a unique position to guide his country’s policies towards the common currency region.
The president in Finland has to understand that there are many different thoughts and opinions and they must be taken into account so that he could be the president of the whole nation.
— Sauli Niinisto.
Born into a working class family, Niinisto was a successful attorney before he entered politics and was first elected to the national parliament in 1987. He was appointed a minister within a decade, first as minister of justice and then finance minister, in the coalition government formed by social democrats and conservatives. Though Prime Minister Lipponen was a social democrat, Niinisto followed staunchly conservative fiscal policies that helped the economy come out of the recession that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the country’s longest serving finance minister, he led the Finnish economy until 2003 when he joined the European Investment Bank and became its vice chairman.
After refusing to become his party’s candidate for the presidency in 2000, Niinisto ran against then President Tarja Halonen in 2005 and lost in the second round. The following year, he was elected again to the parliament and became its Speaker for four years beginning in 2007. In the presidential elections held earlier this year, Niinisto was yet again the nominee of the conservative National Coalition Party and won comfortably against Pekka Havisto of the Finnish Green League.
An avid sports lover, Niinisto’s primary interest outside of politics is said to be roller skating. He headed the Football Association of Finland, the apex body for soccer in Finland, but had to resign this year after being elected the country’s president.
Though the executive powers vested in the office of the Finnish president have been diluted over the last few decades, it is not entirely a ceremonial role either. It is expected that Niinisto will wield a greater influence than his predecessors, especially over domestic economic policy as well as in the wider euro-zone. He alluded as much in his inaugural address by stating that the president ‘can act as an agent of the economy’. He also voiced his concerns about the government’s growing tendency to increase borrowing. The fact that both the president and the prime minister are now from the conservative party, for the first time in the country’s history, may also work in Niinisto’s favor. In any case, for a father who raised his sons himself after the death of his wife of 20 years in an accident, it would appear that shaping his country’s economic and political destiny should not be that difficult.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2019