The Finnish Presidents – Why they were (or weren’t) important

Sauli Niinistö is Finland's incumbent president (elected: 2012)

Sauli Niinistö is Finland’s 12th and incumbent president (elected: 2012)

This is a blog idea I’ve had for a while now and wanted to execute. Finland has had 12 presidents and I thought it would be fun to make a quick-notes style summary of why each of them were or weren’t that important.

I’ve tried to squeeze this info into as compact of a package as possible, so my apologies if it simplifies certain facts and/or circumstances. To note a little bit about the role of the president in policy making, this has been very weak ever since the early 1980s. Policy in Finland is usually created by the parliament and a president’s only real role is to either approve or disapprove of those changes. However, new laws can be passed even without a presidents sign of approval, so his/her role is very tenous (hense why there are so many who think the post of president should be abolished).

However, I like the idea of a leader figure for a country and presidential history is interesting, which is why I’m making this list in the first place. So here are 11 of Finland’s former presidents and why they were (or weren’t) important.

ståhlbergKaarlo Juha Ståhlberg (1919 – 1925, 1 term)

Finland’s first president didn’t even want the job and was so shy he had to write everything he wanted to say in public in advance. Like many early Finnish presidents he was vehemently anti-socialist (following the Finnish Civil War) and his term was marred by a succession of many short-lived governments as a result.

However, Ståhlberg also made the unpopular decision of pardoning all of Finland’s political prisoners.

relanderLauri Relander (1925 – 1931, 1 term)

A president with no political affiliation and it showed. Relander is widely considered one of Finland’s weakest presidents, elected just so he wouldn’t interfere with the government. Though he tried to improve Finland’s image with his continuous state visits, he was actually ridiculed even more because of them by politicians (the general public did like “Travelling Lasse” quite a bit). Relander was the only early Finnish president who allowed the Social-Democrats to form a government though he himself was a right-winger. The president’s most embarrassing faux pas was his outspoken support for the far-right Lapua Movement who became considerably less popular when they started harassing and acting out violence against leftists.

svinhufvudP. E. Svinhufvud (1931 – 1937, 1 term)

Svinhufvud became popular after he managed to calm right-wing fervour in a historic radio-speech, pleading the public to say no to political violence. Despite this, he was also anti-socialist and allowed minority governments to remain in power (believing they could best deal with the great depression). However, he shot down proposals that would have given the president more decision power since he still felt that the government and parliamentarism were the best ways to run the country. Considering his staunch policies, it’s almost comical that he became known amongst the people by the childish nickname Ukko-Pekka (Old Man Pekka).

kallioKyösti Kallio (1937 – 1940, 1 term)

Finland’s only president to die in office. His advanced age, bad health and moderate political views probably made him one of the least memorable Finnish presidents. Indeed, his only noteworthy accomplishment was to prevent Marshall Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (also, future-president) from resigning on the eve of World War II, which would have been disastrous for Finland. Kallio recognised his own poor health and had already planned to leave office but collapsed and died of a heart-attack during his own goodbye ceremonies at the Helsinki Railway Station.

rytiRisto Ryti (1940 – 1944, 1 term)

Finland’s war-time president and the first one to resign from office. Though Finland became belligerent partner of Nazi Germany during the war, Ryti (along with prime minister Tanner and marshal Mannerheim) tried to keep a lid of Nazi propaganda and focus instead on defending Finland from Soviet invasion. Ryti’s best characteristic was his ability to keep the government united during war-time. His biggest weakness was when he decided that Finland was supposed to expand into Soviet territory in the latter half of the war. Ryti resigned from office in order to make peace talks with the USSR easier. Regardless of this, he was sentenced for 10 years from which he was pardoned by president Paasikivi after first being hospitalised.

mannerheimCarl Gustaf Mannerheim (1944 – 1946, 1 term)

Mannerheim’s stint as president was as short as it was unremarkable, especially in light of his accomplishments before taking office. The man helped pen the Finnish constitution, led the White Guard to victory in the Civil War, basically built the Finnish Defense Forces from scratch, founded an organisation to take care of war orphans and led the Finnish military during World War II. Mannerheim was 77 when he took office and his failing health forced him to resign after only two years.

paasikiviJuho K. Paasikivi (1946 – 1956, 2 terms)

Finland’s first president to serve for more than one term. Paasikivi was the father of Finnish foreign policy after WWII. The president who famously quipped: “There’s nothing we can do about geography.” he helped keep Finland in good relations with the Soviet Union while strongly opposing any alliances with other countries to keep Finland neutral and, hopefully, untouchable. Paasikivi had to clean up the mess left over from WWII including refugees and war reparations to the USSR. He could have been re-elected for a second time in 1956 but only sent his bid for presidency at the last minute and was soundly crushed by Kekkonen. He died of a heart-attack later that year.

kekkonenUrho Kaleva Kekkonen (1956 – 1982, 4 terms)

Finland’s longest-serving president. His first three terms were the most crucial and the main reason he stayed in power for so long. He continued his predecessor’s good relations with the USSR, pushed for a nuclear arms free Nordic zone and put his foot down during the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1968. During his third extended term he took all the glory for hosting the CSCE conference after having dissolved the government. His final term was eventually cut short due to Kekkonen’s worsening health and dementia. Though extremely popular in his day, he’s now widely criticised for controlling Finland with an iron fist and for dissolving governments on his own whims.

koivistoMauno Koivisto (1982 – 1994, 2 terms)

Despite Kekkonen’s machinations, Koivisto became Finland’s first social-democratic president. He was unpopular in the press but his biggest virtues were to push Finland towards EU membership (which happened at the very end of his term) and to allow the families of Karelian refugees from WWII to also move into Finland. He also tried to improve Finland’s stature in politics after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, he also sent wanted criminals to the USSR and failed to recognise the legitimacy of the Baltic countries who broke away from the Soviet Union. Koivisto’s popularity also took a dive during Finland’s recession in the early 1990s.

ahtisaariMartti Ahtisaari (1994 – 2000, 1 term)

The first president elected by a national election rather than an electoral college (a.k.a. the Finnish Parliament). Similar to Mannerheim, Ahtisaari’s biggest accomplishments occurred outside his presidency (both before and after) as he was initially locked in a power struggle with a Centre Party government over foreign policy. Ahtisaari was well-liked because he continued to visit average working people across Finland and he also donated large sums of his own money to help the unemployed. Regardless, he chose not to run for a second term. He would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.

halonenTarja Halonen (2000 – 2012, 2 terms)

Finland’s first female president. Her time in office also coincided with the election of the first female prime minister (who was forced to resign after only three months due to a scandal involving stolen political papers). Halonen pushed for changes in the Finnish Defense Forces. She also tried to assert herself in foreign policy (to the chagrin of prime and foreign ministers). She was also an outspoken proponent of same-sex marriage which was eventually approved by the Finnish government in 2014. However, her second campaign for the presidency was criticised for using underhanded tactics to make her public image more positive.