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Stubb’s Election as President to Anchor Finland at the Centre of NATO

Eoin Micheál McNamara (Finnish Institute of International Affairs) 

Finland has a semi-presidential system of government where the President of Finland has comparatively more power over foreign and security policy compared to many more ceremonial presidencies in other Western democracies. Historically, Finnish presidents have held the defining role when deciding the country’s foreign policy. This power has been diluted by constitutional amendments in 1991, 2000 and 2012 respectively. Under the current Constitution of Finland, the president has responsibility to lead in foreign policy in cooperation with the parliamentary government led by the prime minister. The president is also the Supreme Commander of the Finnish Defence Forces (FDF). Technically, the president has the power to make military orders and decide how the FDF is organised. The president officially commissions military officers. However, these powers must be administered in cooperation with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence and, in practice, the vast majority of military and defence legislation is defined by the Parliament of Finland. In addition to the power to appoint and dismiss the parliamentary government and its ministers, the president ultimately decides the personnel for some of Finland’s leading civil service positions. 

Paasikivi-Kekkonen Doctrine

Despite some domestic responsibilities, it is in foreign and security policy that the President of Finland receives the most prominence, both domestically and internationally. Great power actions imposed some grim dilemmas on Finland during World War II. Finland had to fight to retain its  sovereignty and independence that remained precariously poised immediately after 1945. As international relations deteriorated into Cold War hostilities, the Soviet Union remained concerned that Western powers might use Finnish territory as a platform for an attack. Soviet leader Josef Stalin was intent on establishing a “buffer zone” and sphere of influence in Eastern Europe between the Western powers and Soviet territory. Finland had seen its Baltic neighbours – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – lose their sovereignty and become brutally occupied and Sovietized at Stalin’s command. 

Within this context, Finland’s two immediately post-WWII presidents, Juho Kusti Paasikivi and Urho Kekkonen respectively, instrumentally defined a realist foreign policy outlook for troubled times. For what became officially known as the Paasikivi-Kekkonen Doctrine or informally as “Finlandization”, Finland had freedom to develop as a market economy and a liberal democracy, but it would remain neutral, steering clear of Western institutions, primarily the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and also the early steps being taken in European integration from the 1950s onwards. In domestic politics, this was accompanied by political and media self-censorship refraining from criticising the affairs of its powerful Soviet neighbour. Significant trade ties were developed between Finland and the Soviet Union. 

Serving as President of Finland for almost twenty-six years between 1956 and 1982, Kekkonen dominated Finnish politics and foreign policy throughout this time. Looking back, many within Finnish society today view the lengthy Kekkonen era as often detrimental to the Finnish presidency as an institution. Kekkonen argued that neutral Finland needed to play the role of the “physician rather than the judge” in international affairs. He played an important role in attempts to ease East-West tensions, a role symbolized by Finland acting as the host for negotiations aiming to establish the rules governing security in Europe riven with Cold War tensions. The pan-European Helsinki Final Act was agreed in 1975. Nevertheless, a cult of personality developed around Kekkonen’s leadership, leading to a sense that his view and those of only a small circle of other politicians and officials were definitive on Finland’s foreign policy, without the need for much further debate.

Influence beyond Finland’s size

These problems were discreetly acknowledged by Kekkonen’s successor Mauno Koivisto, who was first elected President of Finland in 1982. Koivisto was elected for a second term in 1988. For presidential elections before 1988, the President of Finland was elected not by a direct popular vote but by a select electoral college comprising members elected by the public. The first round of the 1988 presidential election included a direct vote in the first round. An electoral college would only be used if no candidate received over 50% of the vote. The latter instance occurred, and Koivisto was subsequently elected president by the electoral college. In the shadow of Kekkonen’s problematic legacy, Koivisto supported a limit on the number of terms that a president could serve, and greater executive power was transferred from the president to the parliament. Like Kekkonen before him, Koivisto was an influential voice in foreign and security policy in Northern Europe. His second term coincided with a monumental era for security in Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of communism, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Koivisto’s views were sometimes controversial; for example, he was cautious on the prospect of restored independence for the Baltic states. He feared that the independence revolutions gaining momentum in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after 1987 might tip the Soviet Union towards the brink of chaos, bringing severely destabilizing consequences for Europe. 

As leaders of a small state with a population of 5.5. million people, Presidents of Finland have traditionally enabled Helsinki to “punch above its weight” in foreign and security affairs. This was certainly true of Koivisto’s successor, Martti Ahtisaari who was elected in Finland’s first direct presidential election without an electoral college component in 1994. Ahtisaari did not contest the subsequent presidential election in 2000 but was able to draw from his diplomatic and political experiences to remain active in international conflict resolution thereafter. While president and afterwards, Ahtisaari took on various global peace mediation roles in the Balkans, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Finland maintained a “defence and dialogue” stance in its relations with Russia. Finland joined the European Union (EU) in 1995, but Helsinki weighed up the regional strategic balance carefully and did not join NATO until 2023. Finland maintains a strong independent defence system focused on land power and a sophisticated air force. 

However, before Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, there was also a strong belief within the Finnish Social Democratic and Centre Parties that good neighbourly relations with Russia could be maintained through regular diplomatic dialogue and trade ties with Moscow. This policy line was strong during the presidency of Tarja Halonen of the Social Democratic Party, who served two terms between 2000 and 2012. Halonen was succeeded as President of Finland by Sauli Niinistö from the centre-right National Coalition Party (NCP). Sometimes dubbed a “Putin Whisperer” in the Western media, Niinistö adopted a pragmatic outlook on Russia while affirming Finland’s Western identity as resolute. 2016 and 2017 summits bilaterally between Niinistö and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussing neighbourly issues were notable, as was the infamous summit between Putin and US President Donald Trump hosted by Finland in Helsinki in 2018. Niinistö is a strong supporter of strengthened cooperation between Finland and NATO. When Finnish public opinion turned resoundingly to favour NATO membership in the months immediately before and after Russia’s escalated aggression against Ukraine in 2022, Niinistö worked closely with Prime Minister Sanna Marin and her government to deliver Finland’s swift entry into the alliance. His negotiating skills were important in persuading Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to support Finland’s NATO membership bid.

A stronger Euro-Atlantic outlook

Serving from 2012 until early 2024, Niinistö was highly popular with the Finnish public throughout his presidency. He was re-elected for a second term in 2018 with a whopping 62% of the first-round vote, far greater than the 50% needed to avoid a second-round run-off. It was often expressed in Finnish commentary that Niinistö would leave big shoes to fill for whoever would succeed him. In the year leading up to this year’s January/February 2024 presidential election, Pekka Haavisto of the Green League was the early frontrunner in opinion polls. Serving as Minister for Foreign Affairs between 2019 and 2023, Haavisto played a central role in Finland’s successful accession to NATO. He had finished runner-up to Niinistö in the previous two presidential elections in 2012 and 2018 respectively. Standing for fervent liberal principles, Haavisto was expected to poll strongly in Finland’s metropolitan areas. Like other Northern European countries, Finland is moderately divided between urban areas where liberal preferences are more prevalent and rural areas where conservatism tends to have the upper hand. 

As the race to succeed Niinistö gathered momentum by late autumn 2023, numerous candidates emerged. Foreign and security policy was understood as the most important policy issue at stake and a series of candidates with strong credentials in this area entered the race. Despite leading Finland’s governing coalition under Prime Minister Peetri Orpo after the parliamentary election of April 2023, the NCP initially struggled to identify a suitable future presidential candidate. Anticipating electoral competition for conservative voters from the far-right Finns Party, the NCP had been moving further to the right under Orpo’s leadership. It was a surprise to some when Alexander Stubb, prominently associated with NCP’s liberal wing, was nominated as the party’s candidate for the presidential race. Stubb had been a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), and a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister for Finance and Prime Minister, among other roles, but had been inactive in national politics after his tenure as Prime Minister in 2015. At EU-level, he had lost the Spitzenkandidat election within the European People’s Party (EPP) to Manfred Weber in 2018 ahead of the European Parliament elections in 2019. 

No longer active in politics, Stubb had been working as a professor at the European University Institute in Florence in recent years. After the initial round of voting on January 28 2028, Stubb and Haavisto proceeded to the two-candidate run-off on February 11 2024. Both had strong foreign and security policy credentials which tended to cancel each other out in this critical area. The vote was tight, with Stubb coming out on top with 51.62% nationally to Haavisto’s 48.38%. Finland’s urban-rural divide was narrowly decisive. Haavisto was more popular in some urban areas, while Stubb won more rural regions. Stubb could also count on the NCP’s impressive financial resources and party organization throughout Finland’s vast territory, giving his campaign a slight advantage over the organizations that supported Haavisto. 

Stubb is a self-confessed “EU-nerd” and has been a longtime supporter of Finland’s membership in NATO, even when this was against the prevailing political tide. When Prime Minister between 2014-2015, the NCP led by Stubb stood out as the only party supporting Finnish entry into the alliance. Stubb’s election as President of Finland is likely to symbolize Helsinki’s final historic break with the legacies of “Finlandization”. In an interview with Irish journalist Niall O’Connor in 2022, Stubb claimed that neutrality “was a thing of the past” and that now “is the time to take sides”. With Stubb as president, Finland will be firmly on the side of liberal democracy, supporting the Western response to Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine. Addressing foreign media correspondents soon after his presidential election victory, Stubb asserted that he will ensure newcomer Finland takes a central place within NATO under his leadership as Helsinki has done previously within the EU since 1995.


Eoin Micheál McNamara is a research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) in Helsinki. 

This research has been funded by the Reignite Multilateralism via Technology (REMIT) project, funded from the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 101094228.

The views expressed in this blog post are the position of the author and not necessarily those of the Brexit Institute blog.