May 1999                                 

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Ahtisaari bows out of presidential race

The March elections did not lead to a change in government in Finland. But as the second "Rainbow Coalition" started its work, next year’s presidential elections suddenly became the centre of attention, as Jarkko Juselius reports from Helsinki .

President Martti Ahtisaari is to be a one-term president, not even selected as the official candidate of his own party, the Social Democrats, in next year's presidential elections. In his place, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) is expected to nominate Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen as its candidate at the party conference to be held at the end of May. There were certainly some surprising twists and turns in Finnish domestic politics at the end of April/beginning of May.

The March parliamentary elections had passed off as expected. The SDP was heavily defeated but retained their position as the largest single party and the government's front line was saved by the election victory of the conservative National Coalition party. In mid-April, President Ahtisaari appointed the new government which was again to be led by SDP Chairman, Paavo Lipponen. The core of the government and its key ministers remain unchanged. This so-called "Rainbow Coalition II" comprises the SDP, the Conservatives, the Left-wing Alliance, the Greens and the Swedish People's Party. The Coalition Party Chairman, Sauli Niinistö continues as Finance Minister with Tarja Halonen as Foreign Minister. Despite their success in the March elections, the Centre Party did not gain sufficient seats and remains in opposition for a second time, under chairman Esko Aho's leadership.

Just two weeks later, the SDP under Lipponen's leadership found itself in a curious situation. The presidential elections were to be held in Finland at the beginning of next year and President Ahtisaari had promised to make public his views on his presidential candidacy after the parliamentary elections. However, from within the ranks of the SDP came a call for the primary elections to be held in May, and in the opinion polls Foreign Minister Halonen stood out as the favourite SDP candidate. Ahtisaari finally made the dramatic announcement that he would not run in the primary elections but let it be understood that he would be available to stand as a presidential candidate.

This was no longer enough for the SDP which opted to go ahead with the primary elections but without Ahtisaari. Now he can no longer become the party's candidate and his presidential career will be restricted to one term. Only once in Finnish political history, during the 1930s, has the candidacy of the incumbent president been rejected by his own party.

"Ahtisaari mafia"

Ahtisaari, who came from outside the political arena, became president in 1994 in Finland's first direct presidential elections. Before that he had won the first primary elections in the SDP's history, defeating the party's long-standing chairman and oft-times Prime Minister, Kalevi Sorsa. Now retired from politics, Kalevi Sorsa published an article in April in defence of Halonen in which he bitterly accused the "Ahtisaari mafia" of bringing the party into disrepute during the previous presidential elections. According to Sorsa, these primary elections should mark a return to glory for the party. It's clear to see that the SDP's candidacy issue will be thrashed out for some time to come and that it will be like a millstone around the neck of Lipponen who lost control of the situation in the first place.

The SDP fiasco prompted a heated debate in Finland about the presidency. The party whose position is clearest is the Greens, who have already nominated MEP Heidi Hautala as their candidate. Of the opposition parties, the Centre, too, is well-placed with chairman Esko Aho likely to be chosen as candidate at the party conference this October. As for the Coalition Party, the situation is still open and the party is postponing nomination until the autumn. So far, its most likely candidate would appear to be the parliamentary speaker Riitta Uosukainen but increasingly Coalition members appear to be favouring chairman Sauli Niinistö. In the parliamentary elections, Niinistö broke all personal voting records but has so far shown little interest in the presidency. The Swedish People's Party will probably field UN Special Envoy Elisabeth Rehn if she agrees. Rehn lost narrowly to Ahtisaari in the last elections.

The president has hitherto been the real political leader of Finland, even if membership of the European Union has increased the importance of the Prime Minister. Real change will occur next March when the new constitution takes effect, bringing with it a marked shift in power away from the presidency and towards the Prime Minister and the government.

The presidential race has temporarily diverted attention away from the new government, but things will soon be back to normal. In July, Finland takes over the presidency of the European Union, a job that it has been preparing for for two years or so. The joint agreement reached under Germany's leadership on the enlargement of the European Union -- Agenda 2000 -­ was a great relief for Finland. During Finland's term of office, the key issue is likely to be the internal security of member states. This is due to be discussed at an extraordinary summit in Tampere during October. Not least in its government programme, Finland has committed itself to furthering the European Union's common foreign- and security policies and the objective is also to increase the Union's influence in international politics. During Finland's term of office, the Finns will be arranging in the order of 2,000 meetings, of which around 100 will be held in Finland. This includes the final European Union summit of the millennium to be held during December in Helsinki.

Crisis-free atmosphere

The everyday routine of political life awaits on the domestic front as well. Paavo Lipponen's second government has promised economic stability and continuity in Finland's EU policies. In the beginning of May, preparations will begin for the next round of incomes policy negotiations. These incomes policy agreements have in part created the basis for Finland's recovery from the deep recession of the nineties. In fact, this second Lipponen government is the first Finnish government this decade to begin its work without an accompanying atmosphere of crisis.

Unemployment continues to be the government's main worry. The previous government promised to halve unemployment but was only partially successful. This time, the government is promising to provide employment for 70% of those of working age. In addition, it has set the goal of driving the national debt down to below 50% of GNP while freezing its budget total at present levels throughout its four-year period of office. The electorate are promised some small tax concessions and income tax is set to come down annually by about one percentage point if the situation permits. Capital gains tax, on the other hand, will rise by one per cent to 29%.

The government promises to pursue roughly the same foreign policy as previously. Under the "prevailing conditions" there will be no move to join NATO. In practice, this means that Finland will apply to join if the situation changes in such a way as to make membership necessary. With regard to defence, the government has slightly revised its stance. Whereas it used to be considered important to state that Finland had a credible and independent defence capability, now it is considered sufficient to state that Finland has a credible defence capability. Some see this as evidence of a move towards joining an alliance, others see the new wording as smoothing a pathway for participation in peacekeeping activities.

Jarkko Juselius is a political correspondent working for the Finnish Broadcasting Company.

Translation: Sheila Reynolds

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