The Presidents of Finland

While Finland declared its independence on December 6, 1917, the first two years of the fledging nation were taken up by the Finnish Civil War between the right-wing Whites and the left-wing Reds. After the victory of the Whites came the conflict between the republicans and the monarchists, who even managed to select a German prince as King of Finland but had their ambitions scuttled by the defeat of Germany in World War I. The republic was enacted into law on June 21, 1919, and its first president was elected by Parliament on July 25, 1919.

Presidents serve six-year terms and until 1987 there is no limit to how many terms they can serve; they are now limited to two. Compared to most other democracies, the Finnish president has quite a bit of political power and can, among other things, dissolve Parliament at will. However, these powers were reduced in 1987 and 2000 reforms, bringing them more in line with the rest of the world.

Between 1919 and 1987 presidents were elected with an American-style electoral college of 300 (later 301) electors. A hybrid method was used in 1988, and the 1994 and subsequent elections have been by direct popular vote. If no candidate achieves an absolute majority in the first round, a run-off round is held between the top two candidates. All citizens above the age of 18 are eligible, and women have always had the right to vote.

To date, the following people have served as President of Finland:

  1. Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg (1919-1925)
    The first president of Finland, and an architect of the "strong president" policy. His name is Swedish for "Steel Mountain".

  2. Lauri Kristian Relander (1925-1931)
    The ruling Agrarian Party's surprise candidate after Ståhlberg refused re-election, Relander's handling of internal affairs (especially the growing far-right Lapua Movement) was rather inept and he was not chosen again.

  3. Pehr Evind Svinhufvud (1931-1937)
    A leader of the independence movement and a staunch anti-Communist. Another Finnish president with a funny name: "Svinhufvud" is Swedish for "swine head". (Really.)

  4. Kyösti Kallio (1937-1940)
    An economic reformer who led the country through the Finnish Winter War. Paralyzed by a stroke and resigned in 1940.

  5. Risto Ryti (1940-1944)
    Finland's leader through The Continuation War and thus the scapegoat of the war criminal trials after the Soviet Union's victory over Finland in World War II. Voluntarily took the blame for ordering Finland's invasion/counterattack in 1941 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

  6. C.G.E. Mannerheim (1944-1946)
    Arguably Finland's greatest leader ever, General Mannerheim led the victorious Whites during Finland's post-independence civil war but still managed to unite the two sides in their fight against the Soviet Union during World War II. As combined president, prime minister, foreign minister and head of the armed forces, he led Finland through the tortuous peace negotiations. Resigned in 1946 due to ill health.

  7. Juho Kusti Paasikivi (1946-1956)
    The first architect of Finland's policy of strict neutrality. Under Paasikivi's direction Finland signed the Treaty of Friendship, Mutual Assistance and Co-operation (YYA) with the Soviet Union in 1948 (not that it had very much choice in the matter) and joined the United Nations in 1952.

  8. Urho Kaleva Kekkonen (1956-1982)
    Known to the Finns as "Urkki" or just "UKK", Kekkonen took advantage of every privilege granted to the president and used them to stay in power for almost forty years. Kept Finland neutral through the Cold War but at some price to its sovereignty, leading to the term "Finlandization".

  9. Mauno Koivisto (1982-1994)
    Former chairman of the Bank of Finland, Kekkonen's last prime minister, and the first who dared to oppose him and won (if largely on account of UKK's failing health). A hard worker who spoke little and fit the stereotype of a Finn perfectly, his legacy was to thaw the freeze of the Kekkonen years and pave the way for entry to the European Union.

  10. Martti Ahtisaari (1994-2000)
    A former ambassador and deputy general secretary at the United Nations, Ahtisaari was an enthusiastic advocate of joining the EU -- and in 1995 Finland did. Ahtisaari kept up his interest in foreign affairs and was instrumental in developing the Kosovo peace plan of 1999.

  11. Tarja Halonen (2000-)
    Finland's first female president. In 2000, Finland adopted a new constitution that increases Parliament's powers at the expense of the president (a long-overdue development in the view of most Finns).


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