Finnish President Wins Landslide Re-Election in Historic Vote

(Bloomberg) -- Sauli Niinisto was re-elected as Finland’s president without recourse to a runoff -- a first since the post has been settled by popular vote.

Niinisto won a second term by a landslide, receiving the backing of roughly 63 percent of eligible voters and more than half of the ballots cast in every area of the 100-year-old nation.

“Finland is a great country -- it’s the most stable country in the world,” Niinisto told his supporters in Helsinki on Sunday. “Better to be small and stable than large and fractured.”

Although at the helm of a largely ceremonial post, the president 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 Russian President Vladimir 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.

That’s set to continue in light of the “strong mandate” Finns have given him, said Niinisto.

“I see no need to change our Russia policy,” he said at a press conference in Helsinki. “We differ on Crimea and East Ukraine, and the sanctions, but we’ve cleared the air on that. Beyond that are a multitude of issues neighbors must take care of.”

Sami Borg, a lecturer in political science at the University of Tampere, also expects more of Niinisto’s “steadfast and clear” foreign policy stance. “Citizens were clearly satisfied with his policies and actions, and with Niinisto as a person,” Borg said.

His closest rival, Pekka Haavisto of the Greens, who also ran against Niinisto in the 2012 election, saw his support stop at about 12 percent and conceded defeat. Turnout was about 67 percent.

Domestically, 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.

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.

The 69-year-old former finance minister will be inaugurated for his second term on Thursday.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.