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Cablegate: Every Finn's President: Why Tarja Halonen Remains

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 HELSINKI 001139

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL ELAB PINR FI
SUBJECT: EVERY FINN'S PRESIDENT: WHY TARJA HALONEN REMAINS
SO POPULAR

REF: HELSINKI 920

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED -- PLEASE PROTECT ACCORDINGLY.

1. (SBU) Social Democratic President Tarja Halonen remains
enormously popular in Finland, and polls consistently
predict that she will easily win a second term in January's
election. Halonen's left-wing base remains rock solid and
her appeal across party lines is the object of great envy.
Finland's first female president, Halonen is admired more
for her image as Every Finn's President than for any
specific policy initiative or success. Most Finns credit
her for being a non-partisan dedicated to promoting Finnish
political interests abroad and to delivering a broad social
welfare package at home, although her distaste for
globalization draws criticism from business leaders. As
resounding as Halonen's second-term victory is likely to
be, it will have to cast a long shadow to impact decisively
the parliamentary elections of March 2007. It will also do
little to alter bilateral relations with the U.S.
Differences over climate change and Guantanamo will linger.
Halonen will urge caution on Finnish security policy
(especially NATO) and typically fall in line with EU
positions when Brussels and Washington differ. Finland
under Halonen will not send troops to Iraq, but will
continue to contribute to Iraqi reconstruction in other
ways. And on nearly all other issues of concern to the
U.S., Halonen will remain a social democratic leader in
Europe with whom the U.S. can work. End Summary.

A Big Lead Based on Wide Appeal
-------------------------------
2. (U) Recent results in Germany and Poland (and early
polls in France and Sweden) notwithstanding, Finland
continues to gainsay the thesis that left-of-center parties
are in trouble across Europe. With presidential elections
less than 4 months away, Social Democratic Party (SDP)
Presidential incumbent Tarja Halonen enjoys a dominant
lead. According to a late September Finland-Gallup poll,
support for Halonen now tops 58 percent, and her nearest
rivals -- Center Party (CEN) Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen
and (CONS) Conservative Candidate Sauli Niinisto -- trail
badly at 17 and 20 percent, respectively. Some leveling
will likely occur before the election, but many observers
now predict that Halonen could become the first Finnish
candidate to win a presidential election in the first
round.

3. (SBU) Halonen's heady poll numbers are based on rock-
solid support from her left-wing political base and on
significant advantages among women and union members. On
the left, Halonen enjoys near-unanimous support within the
SDP, which accounts for about 25 percent of all voters. In
addition, the Left Alliance and the Greens are largely
behind her. The former is running no candidate of its own
and is campaigning openly for Halonen, while the latter's
own presidential candidate told PolChief she expects many
Greens to vote Halonen in the first round, and nearly all
to do so in the second. Among women, more than 70 percent
support the president, and political leaders across the
spectrum have admitted to us that while party discipline
remains relatively strong among men, it is not so among
women. Indeed, polls show that fewer than 50 percent of
men support Halonen; however, while all parties are aware
of this "gender gap," the SDP has not yet found a way to
remedy it, nor have the others found a good way to exploit
it. A parliamentary deputy (a woman) from the Swedish
People's Party (RKP) explained the phenomenon by noting
that Finland was the first European country to grant women
full suffrage (in 1907) and, as its first female president,
Halonen has indeed been a source of pride to women voters.
(It helps, she added, that some women are "tired of seeing
boring old men run the country.") Organized labor,
meanwhile, is so firmly behind the President that the
Central Organization of Finnish Labor Unions (SAK)
abandoned its past practice of donating funds to candidates
from all three major parties, and will only support
Halonen.

4. (SBU) In addition to her strong support from women and
the left, Halonen's much-envied ability to attract cross-
party votes has thwarted opponents' strategies. According
to one of Niinisto's senior campaign advisors, Halonen's
appeal has undermined his efforts to unite CEN and CONS
voters in an effort to force a second round. As another
CONS strategist put it, "In Europe they talk about 'anti-
socialist' unions of right and center parties, but we
haven't been able to make that work" in Finland. As
another example, one RKP parliamentarian said she fears
Halonen will further the erosion in support suffered by her
party during the last presidential/parliamentary election
cycle.

Nothing Flashy, No Mistakes
---------------------------
5. (SBU) At first glance, some might question how Halonen
has managed to amass such a lead, given that most observers
are unable to point to any earth-shaking policy initiatives
or political victories as the basis for her popularity. In
both foreign and domestic policy, she has been competent
and generally successful. Finns credit Halonen for raising
Finland's profile in the EU, and perceptions are that she
has established a productive dialogue with Russia's
Vladimir Putin which actually benefits Finland. Her
staunch opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq -- while
never used for blatant political purposes as occurred in
Germany -- has been recognized and appreciated by voters.
Domestically, Halonen has unflinchingly defended Finland's
welfare state model, and six years of good economic times
(with GDP growth above the EU norm) have ensured continued
delivery of generous benefits while also allowing the GOF
to forestall any controversial or painful reforms. Still,
even supporters admit that while Halonen has been steady
and reliable, none of these efforts has been visionary or
overly bold.

6. (SBU) Opponents, meanwhile, seem to gain little
traction, even when their criticisms are valid. On social
welfare, for example, most analysts know reforms are
necessary; under Halonen, however, the SDP has so far
avoided addressing seriously Finland's medium- and long-
term structural problems and has offered no answers to a
looming demographic crisis. In this regard, critics say,
the president is popular for the moment with average Finns,
but perhaps shortsighted or even somewhat opportunistic as
concerns the long-term. Business leaders, meanwhile,
sharply criticize Halonen's clear reluctance to promote
robust global trade. While recognizing that she has made
efforts abroad to promote Finland politically, they argue
that her anti-globalization agenda has, in fact, limited
her ability to promote Finnish interests fully.
(Ironically, despite Halonen's popularity among women,
female entrepreneurs as a group have not flourished.) Even
in foreign policy -- considered one of her strong suits --
some say Halonen is at times unrealistic, particularly in
her go-slow approach to security policy.

7. (SBU) The validity of these criticisms notwithstanding,
Halonen's opponents still struggle to find the issues that
resonate with voters. One anecdote is revealing: A
widely-read news magazine recently ran a feature in which
it specifically asked all seven of Halonen's opponents to
identify her greatest mistake or shortcoming, four
(including Vanhanen and Niinisto) offered no answer. Their
non-response says much about Finnish consensus-style
politics and candidates' refusal to engage in U.S.-style
punching below the belt, to be sure. However, it also
suggests that Halonen has performed very well in office, if
unspectacularly, and that her record offers no real gaffs
or gaps that her rivals find they can easily exploit.
Niinisto, for example, has pressed a debate on security
policy that has generated countless headlines and
widespread debate within Finland's political class.
However, his criticisms have stung Vanhanen more than
Halonen, even though the prime minister's camp has engaged
skillfully on the matter. Meanwhile, Vanhanen's role as PM
and his current partnership with the president in running
the country prevent him from going heavily on the attack.
Several of Halonen's opponents have floated variations of
the "Halonen has done nothing wrong, because she has done
nothing" theme (see reftel A), but as catchy as that phrase
might be, voters appear unmoved.

A Carefully Crafted Image
-------------------------
8. (SBU) If Halonen's competent but unflashy performance in
office offers few political vulnerabilities, her image --
also competent and decidedly unflashy -- marks the real
foundation of her popularity. Halonen skillfully markets
herself, at turns, as a tough ex-labor lawyer; a capable
but humble international diplomat; the archetypical Finnish
"self-made" political leader; and the kindly neighbor lady
whom any Finn can approach for a favor or a chat. The
President's working class family background; her years of
service as an SAK labor confederation attorney; her
unexpected success as foreign minister in the late 1990s;
and her modest apartment in a working class Helsinki
neighborhood (which she rents out while occupying the
Presidential Palace) all bolster these impressions in
voters' eyes. Indeed, she is often described as the true
"Every Finn's President," aloof from partisan politics,
accessible and pro-Finland -- but tough when necessary.

9. (SBU) This multi-layered image is as much the stuff of
reality as of presentation. As a leader, Halonen truly
eschews partisan politics and works to build bridges -- a
modus operandi that has served her very well. According to
a top advisor to PM Vanhanen, no president in Finland's
history has forged such a productive and cooperative
relationship with the PM's office, even during previous
administrations when both were from the same party.
However, he lamented, the two are now political rivals, and
their close cooperation has bolstered support for the
president at Vanhanen's expense. "When the President and
the PM both look good," he said, "the President always
looks better."

10. (SBU) At the same time, Halonen is not above well-
placed use of theatrics. She is the first Finnish
president to consistently speak "puhekieli" (everyday
spoken Finnish) in public, as opposed to "kirjakieli" (very
formal Finnish typically used only in writing and on
television and radio). This emphasizes humble roots and
her apparent accessibility to all Finns. She is also among
the first Finnish politicians to enlist celebrity support -
- a new campaign tactic here but one sure to spread
quickly. Meanwhile, there was the famous incident in which
she straightened President Bush's tie in front of TV
cameras during the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council
meeting in Turkey in 2003. Pundits continue to debate
whether or not this stunt represented a victory for
Halonen's image or a liability. However, for every
opponent who tries to ridicule the tie-straightening
episode as mere pageantry (and they were right; there was
no substantive exchange between the two presidents), there
is a supporter who argues that voters view it as an
indication that the President is comfortable among and
capable of dealing with leaders of the world's great
powers.

Halonen Term II: Implications for the U.S.
------------------------------------------
11. (SBU) Regardless of how resounding her victory may be
in January, Tarja Halonen's re-election will do little to
alter the positive tenor of U.S.-Finnish relations. As her
support base would indicate, Halonen heads the left faction
of her already left-of-center party, in a Nordic welfare
state where skepticism toward many current U.S. policies is
deeply entrenched across the political spectrum. However,
it is important to underscore that skepticism does not mean
uncooperativeness. Finnish leaders have a long history of
coexisting peacefully -- even cooperating warmly -- with
large superpowers, and there is no reason to expect
anything different from Halonen the second time around.

12. (SBU) In addition, while the direction of Finland's
foreign policy may be influenced or even set by the
President, Government must carry policy out, making the
March 2007 parliamentary elections more important than
January's results. Some have suggested that a big first
round win for Halonen could translate into a big victory
for the SDP in 2007, or that a distant third-place finish
for either Vanhanen or Niinisto will spell doom for CEN or
CONS. We dispute the former theory, both on the grounds
that Halonen's win would have to cast an unrealistically
long shadow and because the SDP may be facing some of its
own internal problems (septel). The latter theory may hold
more water, but in the end Vanhanen and Niinisto are likely
to finish so far behind -- but so close to one another --
that the implications for their respective parties more
than a year later will be minimal.

13. (SBU) What all this will mean in practice depends on
the issue. Within Europe, Halonen will prefer a go-slow
approach to Finland's NATO membership. (Halonen campaigned
on a "no NATO" platform in 2000 but, as the current vocal
security debate continues, the public posture appears to
have softened slightly and we doubt she will make any sort
of anti-NATO stance part of her campaign this time.) She
will rarely diverge from European consensus and will seldom
advocate Finland's taking a clear lead on issues --
although we should expect the GOF to use its EU presidency
in the second half of 2006 to forward some initiatives,
including anti-trafficking in persons; sustainable
development and energy efficiency; European dialogue with
Russia, and potentially some sort of role in Ukraine,
Belarus or the Caucusus. As for issues that divide the EU,
Halonen will always look toward Brussels before looking to
Washington.

14. (SBU) Further afield, Finnish boots on the ground in
Iraq will remain a non-starter, although GOF non-military
contributions in Iraq are certain to continue. The GOF
will remain deeply troubled by the U.S. handling of the
situation in Guantanamo and by its perception that U.S.
policy continues largely to ignore the reality of climate
change. However, these are not Halonen-specific problems;
they would be contentious issues regardless of who is
elected president. For the other key items on our broad
shared agenda -- including fostering democracy in the
Middle East and elsewhere; crisis management, humanitarian
intervention and peacekeeping; human rights; trafficking in
persons; trans-Atlantic dialogue -- we can count on Finland
during a second Halonen term to be a reliable and pro-
active partner.
HYATT

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