Woman favored in Finland's first direct election

January 30, 1994|By New York Times News Service

HELSINKI, Finland -- When Elisabeth Rehn joined a televised debate among Finland's 11 presidential candidates in December, a questioner demanded to know what she was doing there. As the nominee of a tiny party composed mostly of Swedish-speaking Finns, Mrs. Rehn surely did not believe that she had a serious chance of winning, she was told.

But in January she confounded political experts by finishing a strong second in the first round of balloting. She is now the odds-on choice to win the runoff on Feb. 6 and become Finland's first woman to serve as president, after serving as the country's first female defense minister.

Her Swedish People's Party, the junior partner in the governing center-right coalition, counts barely 6 percent of the electorate. But Mrs. Rehn, who is 58, has opened more than a 10-point lead in public opinion polls over Martii Ahtisaari, a 56-year-old career diplomat who had the most votes in the first ballot.

Mr. Ahtisaari, who has never held political office, is the candidate of the much larger, center-left Social Democratic Party.

At a rally Tuesday in Rauma, a struggling port city on Finland's west coast, Mrs. Rehn was mobbed by young people and supporters who gathered in 20-degree temperatures. Several of them hugged her and held out autograph books covered with her press clippings.

With Finns getting their first chance to vote directly for a president, as opposed to casting ballots for competing slates of presidential electors, this campaign has been the most unpredictable in memory.

In large part, the campaign reflects doubt and uncertainty among voters over Finland's troubled economy -- the unemployment rate last month topped 22 percent, the highest in Europe -- as well as renewed anxieties about instability along Finland's long border with Russia.

"Like everywhere else, people here just don't seem to trust the old politicians," said Jaakko Iloniemi, the former Finnish ambassador to the United States and now the director of the Center for Finnish Business and Policy Studies in Helsinki. "In that sense, I think this campaign has had more to do with personalities than issues."

But in winnowing the selection to Mrs. Rehn and Mr. Ahtisaari, voters have made one policy choice: Whoever wins, they will get a president committed to pushing for Finland's membership in the European Union, formerly the European Community.

While opinion polls find most Finns divided on the question of joining the European Union, they appear to be increasingly receptive to arguments that European unity holds the best prospect of jobs and markets.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.