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By Hanna Kaarto
”A surprisingly good atmosphere”, said Social Democratic Party chairwoman Jutta Urpilainen at the SDP’s presidential election party on Sunday evening.
None of the Social Democrats on the scene were particularly excited about what was coming. The message from opinion polls was quite clear: the long period of SDP presidents - dating back to 1982 - was over.
Perhaps the atmosphere was positive because the party wanted to give the elder statesman who sacrificed himself to run for office a good political farewell celebration.
As Urpilainen was speaking to journalists, pop star Tommi Läntinen was on stage - apparently the only light music artist that the Lipponen campaign managed to recruit for the occasion. Läntinen’s song Via Dolorosa was inadvertently appropriate to the situation: “The land of the rainbow is left far behind. When friendship, hope, and brotherhood are smashed into pack ice”, Läntinen sang, with the whole stage resonating as he thumped the stage with his boot.
What is the reason for yet another failed election for the Social Democrats? After all, the Social Democrats just got into the government, and Jutta Urpilainen has served diligently and smoothly as the Minister of Finance.
The candidate himself gave no cause for embarrassment.
Paavo Lipponen is the pride of the SDP. His achievements as Prime Minister in the difficult times of the 1990s are widely recognised.
Lipponen is a well-educated and internationally experienced politician with an extensive network.
During his campaign, Lipponen tried to inspire courage among the Finns. Lipponen finally agreed to run because he was shocked at the atmosphere prevailing in Finland after the recent parliamentary elections, which he said had seen the country become more racist and more intolerant.
Tolerance, equality, and solidarity are sacred Social Democratic values, and fighting for them was an honourable service to the party in the eyes of the SDP.
The possibilities for success were supposed to exist. So what happened?
Lipponen’s 6.7 per cent finish was a cause for regret even in other parties.
On the evening of the elections, Urpilainen and many other Social Democrats said that voters in the field had mentioned the candidate’s age - Lipponen turned 70 last April.
But perhaps the main issue was not the candidate’s physical years, but rather his spiritual and intellectual age. Lipponen ultimately had nothing new to offer.
He looks with admiration at his own past, in the way that a grandparent might admire a grandchild.
There was no self-critical accounting to be seen. For instance, he refused to discuss his lobbying on behalf of the Baltic Sea gas pipeline.
So why didn’t he have a better message? Lipponen’s campaign did not have the power of the entire Social Democratic Party behind it. It was uninspiring and poorly developed, and although the candidate himself said differently, the party must share the blame.
For instance, the lack of support from the labour unions was striking for a candidate of a workers’ party, and the party’s own supporters did not get on the move for their man.
Lipponen is like the SDP in microcosm. Both bask in the glory of bygone achievements, eyes fixed firmly on the past.
The Social Democrats always point out that they invented comprehensive schooling, the subjective right to daycare, and whatever.
However, great achievements from the 1970s no longer win votes today.
There are families in Helsinki today who do not want - or do not dare - to send their children to a school in their neighbourhood.
Fixers of schools, and not inventors, are needed today.
A practical explanation for Lipponen’s election result is offered by Tommi Uschanov, who has even written a book about the predicament of the political left: he says that the age structure of the Social Democrats is a problem for the party.
“In six years, tens of thousands of people who voted for Tarja Halonen have died”, Uschanov explains.
Another harsh truth: the youngest voters in these elections were just one year old when Paavo Lipponen won his big victory in the 1995 parliamentary elections.
There are hundreds of thousands of voting-age Finns who are too young to me much impressed with Lipponen’s two terms as prime minister.
Lipponen himself put too much trust in matters of the past.
He declared that he was the only candidate who would have been capable of challenging his old colleague and Finance Minister Sauli Niinistö in the second round.
How could he know that?
In sum, the party Lipponen once led has not managed to turn itself into as important a national movement for the younger generations as it was for the baby-boomers before them.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 24.1.2012
Social Democrats lose presidency for first time in 30 years (23.1.2012)
HANNA KAARTO / Helsingin Sanomat
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