Finland is getting ready for the first round of its presidential elections, which will take place on 22nd of January. The incumbent president, Mrs Tarja Halonen, is stepping down after her 12 years in office. She is ineligible for re-election, having served the maximum two terms.

Last three presidents after the long reign of Mr Urho Kekkonen, have been Social Democrats. These include Mr Mauno Koivisto (1982-1994), Nobel Peace Prize winner Mr Martti Ahtisaari (1994-2000) and Mrs Halonen (2000-2012). When the first round now approaches, there is a clear poll lead for National Coalition Party Kokoomus candidate Mr Sauli Niinistö. Niinistö is the ex- Minister for Finance and ex-Speaker of the Parliament, who was the main competitor of Mrs Halonen already in the 2006 elections.

If necessary, the second round will be held on 5 February. It will be held if no candidate receives a majority of votes on the first round. The two candidates who receive the most votes will advance to the second round. There are total 8 candidates in the elections, representing all parties in the parliament. The front runner in all polls has been Mr Niinistö, although his ratings have been in decline. Last poll published by Taloustutkimus on 5th of January gave him 37%, which would indicate that he will not be able to secure victory on the first round.

Behind the early favourite there are the candidates of other parties. It has been considered, that four competitors, Centre Party candidate Mr Paavo Väyrynen, Social Democratic candidate, former Prime Minister (1995-2003) Mr Paavo Lipponen, Green Party candidate Mr Pekka Haavisto and the True Finns candidate Mr Timo Soini, have a chance to enter the 2nd round against Niinistö. Other candidates, who have been considered to be involved more because of the visibility gained for parties than to actually seriously compete about the post include Left Alliance candidate, current Minister for Culture and Sports Mr Paavo Arhinmäki, Svenska Folkpartiet candidate Mrs Eva Biaudet and Christian Democrat Mrs Sari Essayah.

As the election draws closer, the main runner up has been the Green Party candidate Haavisto. Recognized peace negotiator, openly homosexual Haavisto, has been able to mobilize younger voters with liberal values. His campaign has been energetic and succeeded in uniting educated people in the political centre behind him. Last poll put him already to 2nd place with total 8,3% support.

Because of the election system also tactical voting plays a role. Voters favoring progressive values might feel the urge to vote for a candidate most likely to enter 2nd round and drop away more disfavoured candidates. Haavisto, with his rising support, might gain from this.

Other surprising rising candidate has been Mr Paavo Väyrynen from the Centre Party Keskusta. Väyrynen, who has been a minister in four different decades and a star of thousands of cartoons and scandals, has been able to reverse the downward trend of the Centre Party.

Centre Party, which was severely beaten in parliamentary elections and lost its place as the leading force in the government to become 4th biggest political force in the country, chose Mr Väyrynen as its candidate very reluctantly. He was considered to be in clear opposition to the party leadership. Surprisingly he has been able to lure back the agrarian conservatives and anti-EU–minded people, who abandoned the Centre party in hordes for the True Finns. He stands currently in 8,2% support.

Clear underperformers so far, at least what comes to polls, have been the True Finn party candidate, chairperson Timo Soini, and Social Democratic candidate Mr Paavo Lipponen. True Finn party, which made huge gains in parliamentary elections, has been on the rise ever since and currently stands in 19,9% rating and is the 2nd most popular political force in the country. Still Mr Soini scores only 7% in the last poll.

His campaign has been sluggish at best, and most commentators agree, that presidency, or even 2nd round, is not in fact even his goal. Finland will have municipal elections in October, and it is important for the True Finns to stay in spotlight and activate their local branches. Candidacy in the elections serves this purpose well.

Although the most experienced and qualified expert in foreign and security policy issues, which are the main domains where the President still holds powers in Finland, the Social Democratic candidate Mr Paavo Lipponen has been in trouble. His support has eroded since the beginning of the campaign and was even down to 4%. The campaign seems to have been activating the last days, and it remains to be seen whether this will be enough. Social Democratic Party Secretary General Mr Mikael Jungner made a public statement, that if it would be that Mr Lipponen would receive such meager amount of support, he would leave his place in the coming SDP congress in June.

Reasons behind the poor performance of the SDP candidate are various. Although Mr Lipponen’s time as a prime minister was in many ways very successful what comes to employment and competitiveness, many Social Democratic supporters and sympathizers consider that time a period when income differences started to grow fast and Finnish welfare state model was modified in a way which was unpleasant with many citizens with leftist values. Also as an uncompromising EU supporter and the architect of the Finnish euro enrollment, Mr Lipponen has drawn fire because of the current crisis.

Main topics, which have dominated the political discussion, have been the situation with EU and the euro, economical situation in Finland and also moral issues. The True Finn victory in parliamentary elections has activated the discussion around immigration and racism in Finland. Last days the SDP has tried to awaken discussion about economic policy and taxation. Mr Lipponen suggested a new level of income tax to the top earners, an initiative which was seconded by SDP chairwoman, current Minister for Finance Mrs Jutta Urpilainen.

It now seems obvious that the 2nd round will be needed. Mr Niinistö will clear this hurdle without problems, and the interesting part will be to see who will accompany him. The amount of undecided voters is still extremely large, which gives hope mostly to the Social Democrats. Last days of campaigning will make a big difference.

Esa Souminen, Director for Administration in the Finnish Service Union United.