A Presidential Election

In January 1982 I learned that I would be sent to Finland to spend a year as a high school exchange student starting in August. The internet was well over a decade away. Learning about my new home for a year required searching for current information about Finland from libraries, talking with acquaintances of acquaintances who had visited Finland, and meeting a few exchange students from Finland. Every once and a while the atmosphere would allow me to listen to shortwave broadcasts of the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation.

In the quest for knowledge I had the good fortune that Finland in January 1982 was in the world media. The country was having a presidential election. It was the first normal presidential election since 1937 in which Urho Kekkonen was not on the ballot. It was the first election since 1956 in which Kekkonen was not the incumbent and prohibitive favorite to win. The outcome of the election was also historic. The winner, the Social Democrats’ Mauno Koivisto, was Finland’s first president from the left and first born in an urban area (Turku).

Urho Kekkonen (1900-1986) served as Finland’s president from 1956 until health problems forced him to resign in October 1981. My classmates at school in Ylivieska had grown up not knowing any other president. Until 1994 Finland’s presidents were elected by an electoral college whose individual electors were chosen by the people. Kekkonen won the 1956 election by the slimmest of margins 151-149. He was then reelected in 1962 and 1968 in landslides. Before the end of his third consecutive six-year term, parliament by a five-sixths majority overrode the constitution and extended Kekkonen’s term set to expire in 1974 to 1978. At the end of this extended term, Kekkonen then decided to run for yet another six-year term, winning it handily. Only after Kekkonen’s presidency would a president be limited to two six-year terms.

For several reasons Kekkonen was able to stay in office for so long, Many reasons represent topics of books in and of themselves. Yes, he did have the backing of Moscow. This backing was particularly helpful in winning a second term in 1962. In the months before the election, the Soviets created a crisis in Finnish-Soviet relations designed to insure that Finnish voters would rally around Kekkonen. Kekkonen became the embodiment of good relations with the USSR. By the 1970s, criticism of Kekkonen became tantamount to criticism of good relations with the USSR. Kekkonen worked to improve Finland’s economy—a departure from his predecessors who focused largely on their constitutional authority in foreign and security policy. During Kekkonen’s presidency, Finland became increasingly wealthy. Over the twentieth century as a whole no European country had higher rates of economic growth than Finland. Much of that growth occurred during Kekkonen’s presidency. Kekkonen’s foreign policy made Finland a reliable and visible partner in the easing of tensions in the Cold War. Helsinki became place for meetings between American and Soviet leaders. In 1975, Kekkonen hosted the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. At this meeting, leaders of Europe and North America signed the Helsinki Accords that lessened Cold War tensions and gave hope to dissidents in Communist Eastern Europe. The conference, Kekkonen’s most lasting achievement, became a permanent organization, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Kekkonen left office in 1981 leaving the country in a more secure and prosperous place than when he became president a quarter-century earlier. The price of his presidency was a diminution of democracy. Many still question not the high price of Kekkonen’s successes but the necessity of having paid the price at all.