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Monday, February 6, 2012

A New Finnish President

Big news for the last several months here in Finland has been the campaign to elect a new president (Yes, unlike in the US, people aren't obviously campaigning for years at a time.)  The recent president—a woman, by the way—has completed two, six-year terms, so she couldn't be reelected even if she wanted to be (and judging from how bored and pained her husband looked during the New Years' festivities, there might have been some reaction on the home-front even if she could.)

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I couldn't follow most of the debate in the Helsinki papers for obvious reasons, but I have read a few of the English-language summaries and spoken with various friends and colleagues here in town.  With that in mind, I figured you might be interested in some of my impressions, especially as they are formed by comparison with the—crazed—American presidential elections.

First of all, like I said, note the campaigning time.  Man, that makes things so much more reasonable!  Don't get me wrong; all of those running for President had been involved in public life for years, so I suppose you could argue that they've always been campaigning, but it doesn't seem as egregious as the American timetable.  Not to mention, there are no robo-calls.  Yes, if you are voting for President in Finland, you do not besiege citizens with ludicrous slanders or false cheerfulness on their home phone for weeks, if not months!!

It's a good thing, too, because they actually have two levels of presidential elections.  You see, the Finns have lots of political parties, and if I remember correctly, in the first presidential election about 3 weeks ago, there were candidates from 9 different parties running.  Then, if someone doesn't win a majority, they have a run-off election c. 3 weeks later between the two people who got the most votes.  There's no electoral college, electors, or any of that good ole 18th-century stuff we have in the US, too; it's straight democracy, that is, based on popular vote.  I find it really interesting because you have such diverse candidates at least at the initial stage as opposed to the seemingly diverse but relatively homogenous candidates we have back home.

Speaking of popular vote, when I was discussing the election with some of my Finnish colleagues today, they were dismayed that only 68% of the electorate came out to vote.  They particularly thought the excuse of it being just too cold out (-10F), which I had enough sense NOT to offer, was completely bogus.  That's when I learned that you can actually vote by mail ahead of time and, unlike in South Carolina, don't have to come up with a life-changing disaster or foreign travel to do so.  (BTW, in the first presidential election a few weeks ago over 75% of the electorate voted, and my colleagues still thought this number  was disappointing.)  Ah, if they knew of the pathetic turn-out in America (Of course, that's a contributor to the influence of extremists, but anyway …)

About extremists, too …  One of the things I always enjoy here in Europe is how my political views suddenly become very middle of the road.  I think it helps to have actually lived in a socialized state and have something happen to you when you aren't a multi-millionaire; suddenly the much vaunted American freedom seems much less freeing.  As an aside, too, about the supposedly "outrageous taxes" Europeans pay for this social safety net, in 2012 I will pay c. 21% total of my Finnish income towards taxes, pension, the Finnish version of social security, and medical care; I would have to earn more than double my current salary for that tax rate to go above 25%, not likely to happen in my lifetime.  Having just figured my US taxes yesterday, I know for a fact that my total in those 4 areas (taxes, pension, social security, and health insurance) comes to more than 25% of my gross salary payable in the US.  In fact, because of my "windfall" this year, I am paying more taxes than our dear ole' presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.  Let's hear it for AMT.  In addition, if I'm hurt over here I'm not in danger of losing my house, and pregnancy is not covered by "sick leave," when you even get maternity leave at all.  Don't get me wrong; I love my home, but we Americans need to get our heads on straight about this "best country in the world" rhetoric.

Now wasn't I talking about extremists? :-)  Most of my colleagues and Finnish friends here were raving about how conservative politics had gotten and how, really, the choice was between which conservative politician you wanted.  This, of course, made me go look at the positions of the candidates more closely.  Yes, the two that made the run-offs were both more conservative than many of the others, but, thank God, the ultra-nationalist "The Finns" party candidate didn't make it.  (I can't decide which name is more condescending: "The Finns" or their old name, "True Finns."  I guess if you disagree with them you lose your Finn card.)  That being said, I love the Finnish definition of conservative.  First of all, you should know that one of the two candidates was a Green Party candidate.  Now I've been told here that there are such things as right-wing(ish) Greens, but I'm still wrapping my mind around that.  Can you imagine anyone with any ties to the Green Party having a hope in hell in a national election in America?  Moreover, both of the candidates were for some loosening of government regulation on certain businesses (but by no means the regulation free-for-all of American business), pro-environmental legislation, pro-EU, pro-Euro … you get the idea.  In addition, one of the candidates was gay; he'd been in a long-term relationship for over 20 years.  Can you even imagine a gay man getting a presidential nomination in America if he was out of the closet?!  I hear that here, out in the countryside, some folks held that against him, but for most Finns, it just wasn't an issue.  Boy, it's nice to have someone chosen based on political positions rather than, ostensible, morality.  (Although don't get me started on the "morals first" crowd who supports Newt.  Santorum I could understand, although I find him appalling, but Newt?  Really?)

In any case, yesterday was the vote—yep, a Sunday.  You know I've been living in SC too long when that shocked me, although from a pragmatic perspective, it makes perfect sense: fewer people have to work on that day than any day of the week here.  It was funny, though; even though I knew the election was the 5th and saw flags flying in front of most entrances to buildings yesterday, I'd completely blanked that it was the election.  It wasn't until I met one of the folks who works in the Towers when I was walking Ted in the park and that she mentioned she was going to vote that I put two and two together.  Isn't it funny how strong cultural conditioning can be?

In any case, the slightly more conservative candidate—conservative by Finnish standards, relatively liberal by those of the US—won, so Sauli Niinisto of the National Coalition Party (like in the US, the names mean nothing) is the new President for the next six years.  Given that most of the real power in Finland is vested in the cabinet and parliament, his main effect will be in foreign policy, an area in which he is relatively middle of the road—again, by US standards.  He's an internationalist, whatever that means, and an EU supporter.  I know that many of the people I know here were disturbed by how conservative both finalists were, and here's hoping that many of their worries don't come true!

And, Anna, without Finnish, that's about as close to a political analysis as I can come! :-)

For more English-language information, here's a link to the English edition of Helsinki's main newspaper.

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