politics

Finland’s President Eyes Easy Re-Election

  • Polls show Niinisto may be re-elected in first round on Sunday
  • President tasked with appointing next governor of central bank
Sauli Niinisto Photographer: Roni Rekomaa/Bloomberg

The euro-zone head of state with Vladimir Putin’s ear also enjoys the Russian leader’s kind of ratings. Now, Sauli Niinisto is widely expected to win a second term 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 goes into Sunday’s election with support at 63 percent, well above the 50-percent threshold needed to avoid a second round.

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.

Russia’s Friend

Although at the helm of a largely ceremonial post, the president also 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 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.

Read more on Niinisto’s relationship with Putin

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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