He’s relaxed, cool, telegenic, and now a martyr - a combination that’s hard to beat
By Jaakko Lyytinen
A protest with no sense of style, a loss of credibility for Parliament, and a farcical election: this is how newspaper editorials commented on the election of the Speaker of Parliament, in which the National Coalition Party’s Sauli Niinistö nearly got a vote of no confidence. [The Oulu-based newspaper] Kaleva crystallised it: “Surprisingly many in Parliament do not like Sauli Niinistö, but after yesterday, the people like him more than ever.”
The press seems to like him too, as it took Niinistö’s side largely without reservation. Last spring Niinistö’s predecessor Paavo Lipponen claimed in his column in Turun Sanomat that the media is down on all fours in front of Niinistö. Lipponen feels that Niinistö gives instructions to the government without holding any Parliamentary responsibility.
This week, the most visible departure was taken by Iltalehti, which headlined: “Niinistö is a feared tyrant”. Anonymous sources said that Niinistö had made Parliamentary civil servants cry. The story about him being a tyrant is unlikely to eat away at Niinistö’s favour with the public, but what has made him so popular?
“Of course he has been a somewhat different kind of speaker of Parliament than his predecessors were. He has stated things that everybody knows but nobody has dared say out loud. That is why he has provoked so much aggression among Members of Parliament”, says Jutta Zilliacus, former MP of the Swedish People’s Party. She supported Niinistö in the Presidential elections, which was the start of his great popularity.
“Now he got plenty of points in his favour. He is a martyr and a favourite of the people, but not of Parliament.”
Researcher Markku Koski promises to reveal the secret of Niinistö’s success in his fresh doctoral thesis in communications - Hohto on mennyt herrana olemisesta – televisio ja poliitikko (“The Glamour has Gone from Being a Bigwig - Television and the Politician”).
According to Koski, it cannot be explained politically alone, or through Niinistö’s personality traits. In the background there are other things as well - something in which involves more than Niinistö’s own role. Niinistö also seems to have understood the independent formation of his figure, which is independent of his own actions, Koski notes. Niinistö’s character is picaresque - one that favours chatting and irony. In Koski’s view he is, perhaps, the politician best suited to television since Mauno Koivisto: suitably relaxed and cool for a cool medium in which hot presentation is not advantageous.
According to Koski, Niinistö might also be called a “story politician”, whose success is based on stories that stimulate the imagination. Koski lists a number of stories that have been linked with Niinistö: the death of his wife, fascinating relationships with women, relaxed roller skating, shocking experiences in the tsunami in Thailand, and his new marriage.
The election farce opened a new chapter in Niinistö’s story. Only a few Members of Parliament have dared criticise him by name. The secret ballot spoke both of the number of dissatisfied Parliamentarians, but also of fear.
Maija Perho, who served as party secretary of the National Coalition at a time when Niinistö was the party’s chairman, says that the MPs’ protest may stem from Niinistö’s management style: “Typical for him is his very relentless will. He is a leader of change, who wants to throw 110 per cent effort into attacking wrongs that he wants to put right. Undoubtedly the style that he had as Minister of Finance was reflected in this as well.”
The prestige of Parliament is at a low ebb thanks to the controversy over election funding. That dirt has not stuck to Niinistö - quite to the contrary, in fact. If the people were consulted, they would be more eager to cut the powers of Parliament than those of the President, who is chosen by a direct popular vote.
In two years, that President may well be Niinistö, who has been the overwhelming frontrunner in all opinion surveys.
With his relaxed and cool exterior combined with a martyr’s crown, he should be a shoo-in.
As Niinistö himself said in his thank-you speech in Parliament: “The time of rhetoric is over now. The recognition of facts cannot be put off to the next electoral term. Not even if things would go bad for the speaker of truth.”
Things will not go bad for this truth-teller. That was mere rhetoric.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 7.2.2010
Previously in HS International Edition:
Niinistö to continue as speaker after support from parliamentary party leaders (4.2.2010)
Parliament session opens today in tense mood (3.2.2010)
Niinistö considers options after lack of support from MPs in Speakeŕs election (2.2.2010)
JAAKKO LYYTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat