Identifier
Created
Classification
Origin
07HELSINKI94
2007-02-13 14:16:00
CONFIDENTIAL
Embassy Helsinki
Cable title:  

NIINISTO SEES A TOUGH ROAD FOR THE CONSERVATIVES

Tags:  PGOV PREL FI 
pdf how-to read a cable
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RR RUEHAG RUEHROV
DE RUEHHE #0094/01 0441416
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 131416Z FEB 07
FM AMEMBASSY HELSINKI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 2962
INFO RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE
RUEHNY/AMEMBASSY OSLO 4673
RUEHRK/AMEMBASSY REYKJAVIK 0278
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 HELSINKI 000094 

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/13/2017
TAGS: PGOV PREL FI
SUBJECT: NIINISTO SEES A TOUGH ROAD FOR THE CONSERVATIVES

REF: HELSINKI 75

Classified By: POLCHIEF GREGORY THOME FOR REASONS 1.4 (B) AND (D)

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 HELSINKI 000094

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/13/2017
TAGS: PGOV PREL FI
SUBJECT: NIINISTO SEES A TOUGH ROAD FOR THE CONSERVATIVES

REF: HELSINKI 75

Classified By: POLCHIEF GREGORY THOME FOR REASONS 1.4 (B) AND (D)


1. (SBU) SUMMARY: The Conservative Party's (CONS) most
popular candidate, Sauli Niinisto, told the Ambassador
that CONS is likely to remain in opposition following
the March parliamentary election. The Finnish Center
Party (CEN) will win, he suggested, but the Social
Democrats (SDP) -- even if they finish second -- are so
entrenched in government that they can still operate as
the power behind the throne. Niinisto downplayed
widespread speculation that his return to domestic
politics has caused a power struggle in his own party,
alluding frequently to Chairman Katainen's clear
leadership role. Niinisto's entry into the race has
been the Conservatives' brightest hope this election
season, and his sober assessment of their chances may be
the best indicator that a CEN/SDP governing coalition is
likely to continue after the March contests. END
SUMMARY.

Slim Chances for the Conservatives
--------------

2. (U) Ambassador Ware hosted Sauli Niinisto for lunch
Feb. 12. Niinisto has clearly emerged as the
Conservative's leading contender and best hope for the
upcoming March parliamentary election. A former Finance
Minister, EU Central Banker and near-winner in last
year's presidential election, Niinisto's entry into the
election has buoyed CONS and added momentum to its
campaign (reftel).


3. (SBU) Despite his wide popularity in Finland and his
reputation as an outstanding campaigner, Niinisto was
sober in his assessment of the Conservatives' chances to
return to government. In order to join the coalition,
CONS would have to "beat the SDP and come in second," he
said. Even if CONS were to gain several seats at the
SDP's expense, it would be very difficult politically
for the Center Party to "reach around the Social
Democrats" and choose CONS as its governing partner if
the SDP held on to second place. Niinisto strongly
suggested that the Center Party is likely to win, based
both on the public's general satisfaction with the
current CEN-SDP coalition as well as on the strength of
the enormously popular CEN Prime Minister, Matti

Vanhanen. Indeed, he acknowledged, economic times have
been good and the current cabinet has performed well,
making it hard for CONS, as the largest opposition
party, to mount a convincing campaign.

The SDP Still Calls the Shots
--------------

4. (C) But if CEN is the favorite, SDP is still the
kingmaker. Niinisto said that even if the Social
Democrats do not win outright, they enjoy such an
entrenched tradition of serving in government -- and of
pulling government's strings -- that, in effect, they
still call the shots. As an example, Niinisto noted
that following last year's presidential elections,
President Halonen scolded him for running a campaign
that was too tough and too personal. Her accusation
stunned Niinisto, not only because he nearly scored an
upset victory, but also because in his opinion the
campaign was tough but totally issue-based -- never
personal. In retrospect, he said, he concluded that the
President and the other SDP leaders are so accustomed to
being in power that a real challenge from any other
party is almost viewed as a lack of respect.


5. (SBU) As part of the same analysis, Niinisto noted
that several SDP candidates have sharply criticized the
concept of a "non-socialist" or "bourgeois" coalition,
which some pundits and candidates have floated as the
best means for CONS and CEN to join forces and unseat the
SDP (see reftel). Niinisto himself dismissed the
possibility of such a coalition, noting that many issues
still separate CEN and CONS and that, again, CONS would
need a strong second-place finish to gain the
credibility necessary for moving from opposition to
government. However, he characterized the SDP's shrill
reaction as yet another example of its leaders simply
being offended that CONS and CEN would consider such a
bold challenge to SDP dominance.

No Power Struggles
--------------

6. (SBU) Niinisto did not specifically address the wide
speculation that his sudden and warmly received return
to domestic politics has caused a power struggle -- and

HELSINKI 00000094 002 OF 002


even rumors of a possible change in leadership -- within
his own party. But he made a clear effort on several
occasions to suggest to the Ambassador that Chairman
Jyrki Katainen is clearly in charge. He referred to
Katainen's strong leadership, his good campaign skills,
and his command of both the issues and the party's
overall strategy. He praised Katainen's skill in
winning the youth vote for the party -- something he
joked that he is not as skilled at (Katainen is 35 and
Niinisto is 58). Nevertheless, Niinisto knows he is the
CONS standard bearer in the voters' eyes and that he
will be a significant player regardless of whether the
party gets into government or not. He even went so far
as to suggest that if the unlikely occurred and CONS did
return to government, he would welcome being named
either Speaker of Parliament or Foreign Minister.

Comment
--------------

7. (SBU) Niinisto is a strong campaigner, a veteran
politician who has served both in opposition and in
government, and he is clearly the Conservatives' best
hope to pick up seats in the upcoming election. For
all these reasons, his sober assessment of CONS's
chances may be one of the better indicators that the
current CEN/SDP coalition is likely to remain in power
after the election. CEN and SDP have worked well --
and worked well together, in the voters' eyes -- and
CONS is still the dark horse. Some analysts say that
CONS, and Katainen, this year actually have their
sights set on the next election when they hope Katainen
will be more seasoned and the party better positioned
for an upset.


8. (SBU) Comment Continued: Perhaps more intriguing is
Niinisto's analysis of the SDP's ability to pull
strings, even if CEN wins. Many claim that the SDP did
just that in 2003, when it came in second and
reluctantly conceded the prime ministership, but managed
to grab both the Foreign and Finance Ministries --
arguably Finland's most powerful portfolios. Indeed,
over the past 40 years, the SDP has only been out of
power once -- from 1991 to 1995 -- and on that occasion
it actually won the election but stepped aside and
allowed CONS and CEN to form the government. Septel
will examine whether or not the current SDP leadership -
- which is showing some early signs of struggling at
this highest levels -- is still in position to play the
kingmaker role.
WARE