Gay candidate faces tough battle in Finland vote

AP News
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Posted: Feb 03, 2012 12:29 PM
Gay candidate faces tough battle in Finland vote

For his supporters, Pekka Haavisto's breakthrough into Finland's presidential runoff defies fears that tolerance is waning in Finland. The gay environmentalist who lives with an Ecuadorean immigrant faces off Sunday against a veteran conservative.

But they have no illusions about Haavisto's chances.

"I like Haavisto. He's softer and is on the side of poor, but he won't win," said Tiinu Wikman, 23, a cosmetologist in Helsinki.

As Finland prepares to elect a new president, Greens candidate Haavisto's sexual orientation is the elephant in the room. It hasn't come up in newspaper editorials or been a major issue in election debates between him and his rival Sauli Niinisto.

Still, analysts expect it to be a decisive factor in the race.

"The two men are very similar in their views on foreign policy _ the president's traditional domain _ and there is no obvious clash there," political analyst Olavi Borg said. "But a majority of Finns are not prepared to vote for someone who is Green or to be represented by a homosexual."

Among the Nordic nations, which take pride in being progressive and tolerant societies, Finland lagged behind its neighbors in legally recognizing same-sex partnerships. Denmark was the first to do so in 1989, followed by Norway in 1993, Sweden in 1995 and Iceland _ whose current prime minister is openly lesbian _ in 1996.

Finland's registered partnership law took effect in 2002, and Haavisto was among the first to use it, entering a union with a hairdresser from Ecuador.

"I have the impression that Finns are tolerant and feel that everyone is entitled to their privacy and that the private lives of others are none of their business," Haavisto, 53, told The Associated Press on Friday. He added that his sexual orientation could be "a hurdle" for some voters.

Haavisto, who draws support from a core of young, liberal, urban voters, got 19 percent of the vote to finish second in a field of eight candidates in the first round on Jan. 22. Niinisto, a former finance minister, won with 37 percent, and has maintained a clear lead in surveys leading up to the second round.

A poll published by national broadcaster YLE on Thursday gave Niinisto 62 percent support against 38 percent for Haavisto. Taloustutkimus interviewed 1,492 people in Jan. 25 to Feb. 1 for the survey, which had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

The candidates have a lot in common. They entered politics in 1987, when they were voted into Parliament. They come from affluent backgrounds, share a gentlemanly manner and in true Finnish fashion, have not been provoked into confrontation during debates.

Both also have international credentials and are staunchly pro-European, buffering a backlash against immigration and European integration that boosted the populist True Finns party in last year's parliamentary elections.

But whereas Niinisto is a hard-baked economist who was finance minister when Finland adopted the euro in 2002, the soft-spoken Haavisto is a trailblazer of Finland's environmental movement. He became Europe's first government minister from a Green party when he was given the environment portfolio in 1995.

The Finnish president has a largely ceremonial role with fewer powers now than in previous decades, and is not directly involved in daily politics. However, the president takes the lead on non-EU matters of foreign policy and can play a role as a "brand ambassador" of Finland overseas.

Sunday's winner will replace outgoing Tarja Halonen, one of Finland's most popular heads of state, who won re-election to a second six-year term in 2006.

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Associated Press Senior Producer David MacDougall contributed to this report.