Finland’s Obama

It is of course impossible to set a headline like the one above without getting regular condescending chuckles from Swedes about our neighbouring country. But I will do it anyway since there are quite a few parallells that Swedish media has missed out on, perhaps due to their short memory of the previous American presidential elections, obsession with the Republican primaries or lack of Swedish journalists that master the Finnish language and social media.

One should of course be aware of the fact that presidential elections in Finland are far less glitzy than their counterparts in the US. And that presidential candidate Pekka Haavisto probably won’t win the elections. When referring to him as “charismatic”, it’s according to Nordic standards. Nevertheless – this is a man who just like Obama has managed to create a grass roots movement and to rally young people largely in thanks to social media and, as it seems micro-funding. This while his opponent instead is supported by big business and funders. And both Obama and Haavisto have beaten the odds in countries where some still frown at the minorities those two belong to – Obama etnically, Haavisto sexually.

One might say it all began when Finland held parliamentary elections last spring when the right-wing populists True Finns were gaining popularity. Around 104.000 people in Sweden are Finnish citizens, by far the largest minority here. This is what it looked like at the embassy, that was suprised by the high turnout (pictures by me):

Voters outside the Finnish Embassy in Stockholm spring 2011

...continuing in the inner yard...

...and continuing indoors

This comparatively high turnout passed unnoticed in Swedish mainstream media but made it to the foreign section a week later when the elections were held inside the country. To them, out of the blue, the True Finns had become one of the largest parties in parliament. (Quite a few believe that the high turnout abroad might have been in part due to people voting against the True Finns).

Now, during this year’s presidential elections Swedish media has (with few exceptions) largely ignored nonchalantly overlooked Finland, as apart from some coverage now focusing on the True Finns leader Timo Soini. A bit late, considering him being obviously uninterested in becoming president and falling behind in the polls quite early on. The sensation is instead Pekka Haavisto making it to the final round despite being a Green party member, openly gay and being married to a man from abroad.

If looking at google trends, one can see that Haavisto has created more interest online than the leading candidate – the conservative Sauli Niinistö – all along. So maybe his popularity isn’t that much of a surprise after all for those that actually do their homework.

This must to some extent be attributed to social media. I doubt that all the social media phenomena that have materialized around Haavisto are as spontanious as they seem – but then again, neither were they during the campaign that took Obama to the White house. Nevertheless – the initiatives are plenty, and whoever starts them off, they manage to encourage regular, politically unorganized, people to jump on the viral bandwagon in a way I can’t recall has happened in the Nordic countries recently.

A few examples on Haavistos support that may not be original in the US but definitely are in Fennoscandia, specially the way they are coordinated:

  • A Facebook event urging people to arrange their christmas lighting in the form of the number two (the number you write on the ballot to vote for Haavisto) and posting the pictures on Facebook. This one by Linnea Kejonen from Turku:

  • A Facebook group that micro-funds ads on Spotify, radio and newspapers around Finland, one at the time. (I did a story on this for the radio channel where I work as social media correspondent. Both organisers that I got in touch with from this supposedly “independent initiative” seem to be from within Haavisto’s Green Party).
  • The main Facebook group, that constantly links to other groups, pages and clips. (And made sure to like the competitors’ Facebook groups early on) has passed the page of contender Sauli Niinistö, who has been assumed the winner from day one. (But who has seen his support decrease slightly in recent polls).
  • A twitter account, called @PekkaFacts that boasts of all the supernatural qualities that Pekka Haavisto supposedly posesses.
  • People changing their Facebook avatars to “2“, or adding the Haavisto logo.
  • Social media coverage even of midnight campaigning. Haavisto’s group posted the place of the petrol station where he would be stopping, on Facebook, a few hours beforehand. That seems to have been enough for a huge turnout, complete with kids holding posters and blogging for Haavisto. The following features are from the blog Pekkahaavistoprojekti, that came from nowhere right in time for his visit at the petrol station:

Pekka Haavisto with fans in the middle of the night.

  • There are of course flash mobs (this one performing the famous “Finlandia” anthem by Sibelius – elegantly playing into Haavisto’s slogan “A Finland greater than its size”):

Consert with Ultra Bra in support of Pekka Haavisto

I think that many editors in Sweden erronuously have deemed the Finnish elections irrelevant, considering the mainly (but not exlusively!) symbolic power that comes with the Finnish presidential office. (And when doing so at the same time ignoring approximately a half millions Swedish media consumers that have a connection to Finland). And this just little more than a year after Swedish media tried to make a story out of Swedish politians failing to copy Obama’s social media strategies in our elections over here.

Not to say that Haavisto’s competitor Sauli Niinistö, who still dominates most opinion polls, isn’t active as well, just as Hillary Clinton was. Haavisto is more popular only in the 18-24 age cathegory. But somehow Niinistö’s campaign has a larger paid media-flavour to it – which has seemed to play well with the older crowd that favour him for beeing “competent” (and still make out the majority that isn’t convinced primarily by social media alone):

Sauli Niinistö campaigning

Sauli Niinistö campaigning

Just as with all the measures and counter-measures in the Obama-Clinton race, the same happens here. One team puts up the youtube channel “Miksi Sauli” (why Sauli) – the other sets up the site “Siksi Pekka” (why Pekka). Sauli’s team focuses on portraying him as competent – the Haavisto camp counters with a film picturing Haavisto as precisely this, during his former missions at the UN:

And that slogan! With Obama it was “Yes we can”. Haavisto’s is “A Finland bigger than its size”. Instead of trying to win over people with populist critique of minorities (like many did last year), Haavisto charges the rasists heads on. Repeatedly bringing up the rights of minorities, tolerance, peacekeeping (he has worked for the UN on different missions for years). And reminding that slander against him should not be met with fould campaigning. Doing so has for example gained him the support of many in Finland’s Swedish speaking minority, that normally would be expected to lean right.

Swedish media, listen up: Here is a trend that you should be picking up on, just as you at least did succesfully with the Danish elections that “Gucci-Helle” won last year and with the manifestations in Norway after Utöya: a large amount of people in the Nordic countries are speaking up against intolerance. This is affecting us more than the Republican primaries in the US. But then again, Swedish media is not exactly famous for being percipient to minority issues.

If I was a Swedish politician running for office I would already have signed Haavisto’s campaign crew. Then again. Sweden is a monarchy…

PS. Voices in Sweden and in Finland have – to no avail – tried to criticize how Swedish media over cover the Republican primaries and play down the Finnish presidential elections. I tried to bring up the topic on twitter with Martin Ahlquist, the editor-in-chief of Fokus, Sweden’s Newsweek-of-sorts. Follow this link to see how that went down (in Swedish).

PS2: Here is a NYT story from 2008 on how the internet won Obama the victory. This year they are guessing cell phones.

PS3 (3/2 -12): After the comparatibly large interest for this post over the last days I browsed around – and yes, I am of course not the only one to have made this Haavisto/Obama connection. Here is an excellent post on the topic by a blogger in Norway.

PS4. Funny thing. Three days after i published this blog post, telling Swedish media they should be picking up on this paradigm shift and stance against intolerance in Finland – the big daily Dagens Nyheter’s writer Henrik Brors did precisely this (in Swedish).

PS5. If you think the name of Haavisto’s contender, Sauli Niinistö, somehow rings a bell  it might just be because Conan O’Brien slandered him the last time he ran for president – and lost – six years ago:

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18 Responses to Finland’s Obama

  1. Finnish presidential election 2012 well explained. Found and shared this on Twitter.

  2. Henrik says:

    Every now and then there’s a populist movement. A year ago in the Finnish election it was the nationalist Persu movement, this time it’s the populist green movement. Its getting a bit like a religion really, with narrow-minded arguments and lack of criticism. But that’s politics.

    • I understand what you mean – in part. I don’t know if I would call Haavisto’s campaign “populist”, but there is certainly an enthusiasm among some of his fans, maybe specially in social media, that certainly almost has a sect vibe to it…

    • Michaela says:

      “Narrow-minded arguments”. Yes, of course it is extremely narrow-minded to care for people on the bottom of society, to try to include minorities instead of exclude them, to work for peace and equality not only nationally, but internationally. Please, explain to me where you see the narrow-mindedness.

      There seems to be a common believe on the side opposite of Haavisto, that he does not favor economic growth, when in fact, he has said from day one of these “religious campaigns” as you call them, that economic growth must be environmentally and socially sustainable. Niinistö on the other hand sees the GDP as the indicator for well-being in a country. There is numerous studies on this topic that will prove Haavisto’s point. Not to mention history itself.

      There are growing disparities in this country – the old thing of the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Rapid economic growth would only increase the disparities. Sure, there would be more money in the country, money that will then need to be spend on fixing the very same problems that the economic growth has caused – probably at a much higher price.

  3. Lauri says:

    Hello! One funny part of Haavisto’s campaign is his hiring of Pertti Jarla, a popular Finnish comic artist. Jarla is creating a series of comic strips under the title ‘Kakkonen on ykkönen’ – number two is number one. The comics are mildly poking fun at Haavisto’s sexuality and making the gay jokes for him, not against.

    • Thanx for the tip! When browsing through the jokes at first, I seriously thought that you were trolling me – raunchy! It seems the site really is bonafide though – is the artist famous, you say? Will this really win Haavisto votes in the not already convinced segment?

      • squi says:

        Pertti Jarla is definitely famous, his kinda twisted comic series called Fingerpori has been appearing in Helsingin Sanomat for many years now. Even it it really is a bold move from Haavistos part, I’m not really sure if it’ll convince non-supportes to vote for him. The comics are still really good though 🙂

      • Anne says:

        Jarla is famous and I think these comic strips have helped people to deal with their homophobia brilliantly. These are not part of Haavisto’s official campaign but Haavisto laughs at them too and has had several public discussions with the artist.

      • Lauri says:

        Well, I’m not sure whether those comics will win him any votes per se, but I think they are in part creating the image of a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Niinistö, and first rounders Lipponen and Väyrynen, are all political heavy weights who don’t seem to have too much space for any self-irony.

        I think Haavisto’s double punch among many voters, especially young, is that he fares very well in debates and is really sharp, but he also seems to have a lighter side. If Niinistö ever tried to show any humor or warmth, it would feel like it was something his PR people came up with.

  4. Finn with concience says:

    I have voted for Niinistö´s party before.
    There is no doubt that Niinistö is a finance expert and experient politician in our homeland Finland.
    But then again, the Finns themselves know well that the financial issues are not the primary
    aspects for the job of Finland´s president, because this job belongs to the parliament and finance minister.
    Thus Haavisto has a lot of appriciated works from his past to become a president, such as many peace making processes in the battle fields around the world for many years (you can read this from Wikipedia).
    Also Pekka Haavisto has been selected as one of the internationally most influential Finnish
    while Sauli Niinistö´s name is nowhere to be seen in the top spots.
    And in Finland´s law, the most important task for the president is foreign policy, not finance.

  5. Katja says:

    Thank you for this excellent, comprehensive, and extremely well illustrated analysis !

    “Sect vibe” ? Hmmm… What I see (and share) is an unprecedented surge of creativity and hope in a political landscape ridden by the economic crisis, not so old funding scandals for the “classical” parties, the rise of the “True” Finns., and the general mood of an era of uncertainty.

    “Miracles happen when we make them” is a message I’ve always believed in, but then one would say I’m part of the sect 😉

    • Thank you for your kind words. The absurd amount of traffic to this blog post the last three days, and comments such as yours are an encouragement. (I only manage to motivate myself to blog when I feel there is an important topic that other journalist’s aren’t adressing).

  6. riabaeck2 says:

    Thanks! Nice article; now i know something more of what is going on in this other European country. Greetings from Belgium,

  7. shifting_trends_in_any_case says:

    Funny, i was precisely thinking this comparison to myself (Obama vs. Haavisto):
    The first north american black president, and (possibly) the first finnish (and worldwide!) green president. In each case a remarkable breakthru in conservative trends of thought/opinion.
    I’m sure if he won the elections, Finland would be in the news all over the place: Sweden, Belgium and even USA 🙂
    But as you say, polls don’t seem so much on his side, and the other candidate (Niinistö) was already second in the previous presidential elections back in 2006, so it’s kind of his turn to be first and leave somebody else take his place, so maybe kakkonen on kakkonen after all… will see very soon!

  8. Katja says:

    Keep on writing Yasmine 🙂 After 20 years abroad in French-speaking countries, my Swedish has unfortunately become too rusty to be enjoying anything beyond a cold beer in good company, but as you can see, posts in English de get readers, and this one is especially topical right now for those of us who discuss this election and share your post on FB 😉 – add to it the fact that your local-and-global perspective and the format mix are absolutely brilliant.

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