Opinion & Analysis

What to expect from Finland’s new President

Alexander Stubb has been elected as the new President of Finland. Tuomas Forsberg writes on Stubb’s background and what his victory might mean for the country’s future.

On 11 February, Alexander Stubb was elected as the next President of Finland. The most important fact about Stubb, for the readers of this blog, is that he received his PhD from the London School of Economics in 1999 with a dissertation on flexible integration under the supervision of Professor William Wallace. Before that he had done his BA at Furman University in South Carolina and received his MA from the College of Europe in Bruges.

He was working at the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and at the European commission as an EU expert, but then launched a successful political career by being elected to the European Parliament in 2004 as a candidate of the liberal-conservative National Coalition Party. In 2008, he was appointed Foreign Minister of Finland and held a ministerial post for almost 10 years, including a short stint as Prime Minister. In 2017, he withdrew from Finnish politics, going first to the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg and then becoming Professor and Director of the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Florence.

Despite declaring that he had no interest in returning to Finnish politics, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 changed his stance. His country was calling, or more concretely, the chair of the National Coalition Party, Prime Minister, Petteri Orpo, called Stubb and asked whether he was willing to run as a candidate in this year’s presidential elections. In the first round, Stubb was supported by 27.2 percent of voters and in the second round he beat the Green candidate, also a former Foreign Minister, Pekka Haavisto, by a narrow margin, receiving 51.6 percent of the vote.

National unity

One might be forgiven for thinking that the narrow margin leaves the country politically divided. Those on the right mainly supported Stubb while those on the left backed Haavisto. In domestic politics, the polarisation of Finnish society between the government and the opposition was indeed accelerating in the winter leading to large strikes and demonstrations.

However, both the election result as well as the campaigning in the presidential election demonstrated broad national unity in foreign policy. All nine candidates, from the True Finns to the Left Alliance, supported Finland’s NATO membership and strong commitment to assist Ukraine in its defensive struggle against Russia.

It is particularly difficult to find significant differences in the stances between Stubb and Haavisto. Both are urban (born and grown up just two miles apart in the suburbs of western Helsinki), international (married to spouses from abroad) and liberal when it comes to their societal values. Although their political backgrounds are different, both positioned themselves close to the political middle and played it safe.

In international affairs, Stubb’s past focus was more related to the EU and the West, while Haavisto has looked more frequently to the UN and the global south. However, Haavisto led Finland’s entry into NATO as Foreign Minister, while Stubb has readily recognised the importance of the global south and environmental issues for Finnish foreign policy.

The election debates and campaigning were exemplary in soberly focusing on issues, values and facts. They were conducted in a good spirit, with both candidates demonstrating high respect towards each other. Stubb was slightly more hawkish than Haavisto in his views on Finland’s role in NATO and its relationship with Russia, but on the other hand, Haavisto could charge Stubb with being too soft on China.

Dirty, negative campaigning was absent from publicity and limited to marginal social media platforms. As an elegant gesture of his willingness to reach out to the whole nation, Stubb visited Haavisto’s election party shortly after the election result had become clear. The main sign of societal divides was instead the low turnout in the second round. Many supporters of the True Finns found both candidates too liberal and stayed at home instead of voting for either of them.

Stubb’s presidency

As President of Finland, Stubb will continue the Finnish foreign policy line that emerged after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and led to the country’s application to NATO in spring 2022 and full membership a year after. Stubb reflects the strong elite and public consensus on foreign and security policy centred on a sceptical attitude towards Russia, support for Ukraine and an active NATO policy.

Had there not been a fundamental public opinion change on foreign policy, it is highly unlikely that somebody like Stubb, who has always strongly favoured deeper western integration, would have been elected as President. Now, however, he can be viewed as someone firmly in the mainstream. Stubb has been in favour of NATO membership since the 1990s and had an argument on the issue with the previous President, Sauli Niinistö, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Even if Stubb wanted to drive his own agenda as the leader of foreign policy, he must, according to the constitution, collaborate with the government. Right from the start, he is going to focus on formulating a new policy for Finland in NATO and backing up the international coalition supporting Ukraine. This requires tight cooperation with the government and the ministries: at the beginning this should be smooth as the Foreign Minister, Defence Minister and Prime Minister are all close allies from the National Coalition Party.

Stubb will also play a key role in shaping bilateral Finnish-US relations in turbulent times. As a native Swedish speaker, he symbolises and can foster closer Nordic cooperation. On top of that, the general decay of the liberal rules-based world order and other urgent global issues, including the tensions and acute conflicts in the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and in Africa will keep the President preoccupied. Stubb has stressed on several occasions that the West can only appeal to the global south if it can reduce its own hypocrisy in international affairs.

Russia, Europe and NATO

A key task for Stubb’s predecessors was to manage and take care of bilateral relations with Russia. Now this agenda is entirely frozen. In Stubb’s view, Russia must stop its war in Ukraine before any normalisation of relations with Moscow can begin.

European integration has been Stubb’s focus throughout his career, but this issue is the prerogative of the Prime Minister, not the President. However, as a sophisticated international opinion-maker, Stubb can also contribute to the evolution of European politics. Through bilateral relations and large, tight networks, his persuasion skills might help foster European unity and determination, including in relation to the UK. On European security and defence, the separation of powers between EU affairs and other foreign policy issues cannot work without effective coordination and functional collaboration.

As President, Stubb will be judged on his ability to safeguard national security interests and promote foreign policy priorities that in the present international situation appear rather obvious. The President will, however, be given a true test when the present constellation further evolves and requires new strategic choices, whether due to changes in transatlantic relations and NATO, the war in Ukraine, the regime in Russia or something more unforeseen.

About the Author

Tuomas Forsberg is a Professor of International Politics at the University of Tampere.

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