The Irish Times, 9 February 2000

Tarja Halonen, a Peopleís President

By Tapani Lausti

Tarja Halonen, Finlandís new president, may have left behind much of her 60s left-wing radicalism but one thing is sure: in style she will bring a breath of fresh air which may well originate from that rebellious decade. In comparison, her predecessor, Martti Ahtisaari, and her rival in the presidential election, Esko Aho, seem Victorian in their statesman-like postures.

In Halonenís case, the informality does incorporate feminist impatience with male self-importance. Her gender was a big issue in the election campaign. When her victory was confirmed, many Finnish women expressed strong excitement and pride in the result. One female political colleague said that only now have Finnish women been fully acknowledged as citizens.

Foreign commentators have made much of Halonen being a single mother and living with a partner outside marriage. In urban Finnish terms these facts are unimportant. More heat has been generated by her personal history as a radical supporter of many left-wing campaigns. Some more excitable right-wing businessmen immediately complained about the threat to their wealth-creating energies. Even the possibility of future riots was mentioned.

In the calmer reality of Finnish political life, the new president, as a representative of mainstream Social Democratic principles, is hardly likely to rock the national boat. Her gender, however, is again seen as a factor. Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, who had appointed her as foreign minister, said that Finlandís first female president will definitely make a mark on the way the country is run. Lipponen referred to the male chauvinist tendencies of the countryís male population.

Halonenís informality may also have something to do with her working class Helsinki background. Self-importance is mocked in this world. Her friends and supporters in the Norhtern working class districts of the capital were ecstatic after her victory. They expect the new president to stick with her egalitarian instincts and concern for the poor. Halonenís friends also decribed her victory as a victory for a pluralist, pro-European Finland. It is in foreign policy that the president has a more important role to play.

The new president has a tough political background. Having worked as a trade union lawyer, she served as Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Kalevi Sorsa in 1974-1975. She has been a Member of Parliament since 1979, Minister of Social Affairs and Health 1987-1990, Minister of Nordic Co-operation 1989-1991, Minister of Justice 1990-1991 and Minister of Foreign Affairs since 1995.

Over the last few years, Halonen has become well known in European corridors of power. Her role in the Finnish EU Presidency last year has been widely praised. She campaigned for more openness in the way the Union is governed. She has also been wary of the EU drifting towards a military alliance, a view not unrelated to her ďrelatively pacifistĒ leanings.

As for temperament, Tarja Halonen has a warm and open manner although she is known to be outspoken and sometimes explosive in anger and impatience.

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