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Koivisto, Mauno (1923 - )

President of Finland

Mauno Koivisto
Helsinki University Museum

In his posts as finance minister, governor of the Bank of Finland and prime minister, Mauno Koivisto won wide popular support that transcended party boundaries, and he used this support in becoming President of Finland in 1982 after Urho Kekkonen's presidency was brought to an end by illness. Koivisto was forced to react to challenges which Urho Kekkonen's long period as president had created for his successor. In foreign policy, Koivisto continued the line drawn by Kekkonen, adhering to a cautious policy of neutrality. Features of domestic politics under Koivisto included a limitation of the president's powers.

Mauno Koivisto's two terms as president from 1982 to 1994 were a time of great change. With its extraordinary length of 25 years, Kekkonen's presidency was a challenge to his successor. Urho Kekkonen had created a very president-centred system fostered by the importance of relationships with the Soviet Union and simultaneous attempts to participate in the Western integration that had become so economically important. Initially Koivisto stressed his continuation of Kekkonen's policies, but the firm support that he enjoyed was also based on the fact that he was different from Kekkonen. It was during the Koivisto era that the Soviet Union began to lose its grasp as a great power and finally collapsed. Koivisto's wariness in pursuing the opportunities opened up by the loosening of the Soviet Union's grip aroused criticism, but he also received recognition for his stance.

Koivisto's career, in which he went from largely self-propelled student to PhD, prime minister and then president, realised the Finnish dream in two ways: he overcame difficulties in order to acquire the learning so respected by Finnish society; and he struggled to work his way up from humble social beginnings to higher positions. His ascent to the presidency can be explained by the front-running position in the opinion polls that he established right at the start of his term as prime minister. This 'Koivisto phenomenon' lasted from his first term as prime minister to his second as president.

The years of growth

Mauno Koivisto was born in 1923, the second son in the family of a ship's carpenter. A sister was born three years later. His father had been to sea and had there experienced a religious awakening which was reflected in the family's life. He regarded Saturday as holy, for example - though he was not an Adventist. Mauno's mother was the daughter of a precentor.

The tough experiences of his childhood included the death of his mother when the boy was ten and the practical household problems that began when his father was left as a single parent. After attending primary school, Koivisto had a number of jobs, and when the Winter War broke out, he joined a fire-fighting unit at the age of sixteen, moving on from there to various workplaces. In the summer of 1940, during the Interim Peace, Koivisto was already keeping abreast of public issues to such an extent that he was "never terrified in the same way" as he was at that time. The events in the Baltic States and the demonstrations organised in Turku by the Finnish-Soviet Peace and Friendship Society were spreading fear.

When the Continuation War erupted, Koivisto enlisted in the volunteer field fire-fighting forces. He ended up in Eastern Karelia and became used to combat conditions. In February 1942, now of call-up age, he was first sent to a training centre and then served at the front in the 35th Light Infantry Regiment in Eastern Karelia until February 1944. He then became a member of a light infantry company - led by the legendary Lauri Törni - in the 1st Division.

His wartime experiences as described in his memoirs reveal two aspects of Koivisto: that of a thinker even under combat conditions; and - especially during the final stages of the war - that of a man who read the Bible and believed in the protection of God. In his letters to his father he brought out his trust in God's protection as far as both he himself and Finland were concerned. Even before the publication of his memoirs, Koivisto had referred several times to the influence of the war: "When you have taken part in a game in which your own life is at stake, all other games are small after that experience". His comrade and rival Kalevi Sorsa has described Koivisto in terms of wartime experience and the model for action gained from it: "I think of him above all as a man on a long-distance patrol; he aims far, does not whisper much about his objectives, strikes fiercely, disappears and covers his tracks". Koivisto has aimed very purposefully at his objectives, a fact which has not been easy to perceive. He has had the experience of many who have returned from war: "If you are still in possession of your life, all avenues are open".

After the war, Koivisto began to take a real and active interest in politics and in making a political impact. He joined the Social Democratic Party (Sosialidemokraattinen puolue: SDP) in a situation that required taking a stand and showing courage. At a strike meeting of carpenters in Turku, Koivisto spoke out in a way critical of methods being employed by the strikers and attracted the interest of the Turku Social Democrats. After this, Koivisto and Rafael Paasio, the editor of Sosialisti, met for the first time. This meeting launched Koivisto's ten years as a writer for the publication under the pseudonym Puumies ('Carpenter').

Koivisto joined the social democratic movement to fight against communism. The fact that his father had been a member of the Civil Guards, as well as Koivisto's home background, made the choice a natural one. In autumn 1948, Koivisto obtained a job at Turku harbour, and in December of the same year, he was put in charge of the harbour-master's office. In the late summer of 1949, trade unions controlled by the communists attempted to topple Karl-August Fagerholm's Social Democrat minority government, and the social democratic leadership of the Finnish Confederation of Trade Unions (Suomen Ammattijärjestöjen Keskusliitto: SAK) declared the port of Hanko an 'open site' and urged organised port workers who supported legality to go to Hanko. Koivisto moved there to take charge of the harbour-master's office and recruit workers, the government having banned strike action. Uusi päivä, the communist publication in Turku, branded Mauno Koivisto as Finland's Enemy No.1. Koivisto was at the focal point of the struggle for control of the trade unions. During this period, the Puumies columns contain repeated references to "giving as good as one gets" and appeals for "men who are not afraid of terror". Koivisto claimed in his memoirs that the civil resistance of those days saved Finland.

After the strike, the social democrats' aim was to smoke out active communists from the ports, and this was one reason why Suomen Lastauttajien Liitto, the Finnish shippers' association, engaged Koivisto as a port inspector. However, the shippers never put their plan into action, because, according to Koivisto, they were trying to exploit the rivalry between the social democrats and the communists. According to the researcher Tapio Bergholm, disillusionment at the way in which the shippers acted created the basis for the new outlook adopted by Koivisto: the party soldier became the thinker and student.

In addition to taking part in social democratic activities and working for a living, Koivisto also studied, passing his intermediate examination in 1947 and his university entrance examination two years later. In summer 1950, Koivisto bade farewell to harbour work. He took a job at a strawberry-pickers' camp in England and the following year became a temporary primary-school teacher. It was also during this period that he married Tellervo Kankaanranta in 1952.

The focus now shifted to studies, and Koivisto took out his Arts degree in 1953. Three years later, he published his doctoral dissertation, entitled Sosiaaliset suhteet Turun satamassa ('Social relations at the port of Turku'). In both the theoretical section and in his interpretation of the responses of harbour workers, the author ended up stressing the relativity of the findings. The dissertation was not a mere demonstration of scholarship but a summation of his own experiences. Everyday reality was included in the author's discussion of how, in many industries, the employers' attempts to improve work motivation had produced good results; but the nature of harbour work made this an "uphill battle".

Koivisto's studies and the work on his dissertation had led to contacts both with teachers of the social sciences and with young researchers. He was a member of a discussion group that revolved around Carl-Erik Knoellinger, a professor of Economics at Åbo Akademi University in Turku, and he was also influenced by another circle, led by the lecturer Juhani Paasivirta, which examined social issues from a social democratic viewpoint. He was also a member of the Akateeminen Sosialidemokraattinen Yhdistys (ASY), a social democratic students' association founded in Turku in 1946. Because of his academic work, he kept somewhat clear of the quarrels that led to division within the SDP in the 1950s. He did, of course, participate in the debate concerning the party; but his dissertation clearly provided him with the ability to analyse matters from a broader perspective.

The Turku period also saw the beginnings of a split in the SDP. For Koivisto, it was difficult to choose sides. After the general strike of 1956, which he regarded as shocking, he became more clearly a Leskinen supporter and began to criticise the growing influence of the trade union movement on the party. In his view, the movement's goals were narrow, involving only the living standards of workers.

Seeker of the new

Plans for a university career changed when Joonas Laherma, the long-serving general manager of a savings bank, the Helsingin Työväen Säästöpankki, offered Koivisto a position there. The move to Helsinki in 1957 meant leaving behind the familiar ambience of Turku and becoming involved in a new bread-and-butter job, first as the bank's deputy manager and from October 1959 as its general manager. His new duties introduced Koivisto to the everyday world of economics and finance in Finland.

After moving to Helsinki, Koivisto was energetic in making contacts. For example, he joined a group of young researchers known as the 'o-group' because most of them had a surname or first name - or both - ending in the letter O. These young economic theorists wished to modernise their discipline; what they shared was a belief in the opportunities open to economic policy if they, as researchers, could show ways forward. They disseminated their ideas in the newspaper Suomen Sosialidemokraatti under the pseudonym Kärjekäs ('Caustic'). Fifty-seven of these articles appeared, thirteen being written by Koivisto.

After their move to Helsinki, the Koivistos were intitially members of the ASY. Some of the lectures held there were written by Mauno Koivisto, who edited and published them all in a book which appeared in 1960 and was entitled Laajempaan kansanvaltaan ('Towards Greater Democracy'). The Koivistos also took part in founding the Yhteiskuntapolittinen Sosialidemokraattinen yhdistys, a Social Democratic association for social policy. The association acquired new impetus when Pekka Kuusi, the author of 60-luvun sosialipolitiikka (English title: Social Policy for the Sixties), joined it in May 1964. Within the party branch, the goals formulated by Koivisto emphasised that an examination of practical problems should be based on the traditions of the social democrats but conducted in a scientific way. There were three key words: tradition, science and practice.

After establishing contacts in various quarters, Koivisto began to look for a new political line for the Social Democrats and a way out of the party's isolated position. As he sought opportunities for resolving conflict within the party, it became clear to him that in order to escape from isolation, it was necessary to forge relationships in three directions: with Kekkonen, with the communists and with the Soviet Union. Similar ideas were brewing in other quarters, especially after Kekkonen had strengthened his position in the 1962 presidential election.

At Tampere and Nokia on May Day 1965, Koivisto gave a speech clearly conforming with the new line. Its central message was the possibility of co-operating with the communists in government - thereby escaping from isolation - and independence from Kekkonen in forging relations with the Soviet Union. The speech had been preceded by one given by Kekkonen to a meeting of the Paasikivi Society at the Helsinki Workers' Hall in September 1964 - a speech in which the president appealed for co-operation - and by an article published in Pravda in February 1965 suggesting the need for a reassessment with regard to international social democracy.

Koivisto made (initially secret) attempts to create conditions for a healing process in the trade union movement, and he made contacts with various trade union organisations in both Finland and Sweden. Several important social democratic figures knew about Koivisto's activities, and he maintained discussions with the party's chairman Rafael Paasio and with Fagerholm, who had kept himself above the dispute - and also with the party strongmen Väinö Leskinen and Kaarlo Pitsinki. When he supported Koivisto's candidacy for prime minister in 1968, Leskinen thus had good reason to point out his extensive contacts.

The 1968 election victory of the Social Democrats and the Left in general created a new situation: Koivisto was level with - even ahead of - Paasio, and he and Pekka Kuusi played the most active roles in seeking a new formula for a government.

The finance minister

An important milestone on the road to positions of national leadership was Koivisto's anticipated appointment as finance minister in the government of Rafael Paasio. The communists were included, although initially Paasio regarded co-operation with the Centre Party (Keskustapuolue) as the best solution. Since Koivisto was Paasio's partner in discussions and since Paasio chose the Social Democrat ministers, it was obvious that Koivisto would be included in the government.

Koivisto's status as the party's expert on economic policy had already been recognised before the government was formed. In early 1966 he presented a plan for the party's economic policy platform, proposing, amongst other things, a positive attitude towards private capital. In his view, all the talk about socialism did not interest people. State companies had to be organised efficiently, he thought; but augmenting the State's property was not important. What was an important goal was increased employment. His attitude towards another important issue - that of regional development - was basically positive, but he stressed that it must be fitted into an overall framework. Thus Koivisto's image contained heterogeneous components. His support for the forging of relations with Kekkonen and the Soviet Union - and particularly for the inclusion of communists in the government - stamped him as a radical, while his ideas on economic policy pointed in a different direction. There thus emerged a picture of Koivisto as a practical man who supported new ideas.

The Paasio government's economic policy became the target of more than usually severe criticism. The Centre Party had lost its position as the leading governmental party, and the change in the government's course thus drew criticism from the non-socialist opposition. For their part, the communists, who came back into government after a break of 18 years, tried to sit on the fence between government and opposition. Criticism also came from within the Social Democrats' own ranks; after eight years in opposition, expectations were high. The main target was the prime minister and party chairman Paasio. But the sharp end of the criticism was aimed at Koivisto's 'hard-cash policy'.

As finance minister, Koivisto had the job of introducing two budgets and taking care of devaluation, which amounted in all to 31% and which repeated a pattern in Finnish stabilisation policy: the cost problems of export industries were solved by means of devaluation. When Koivisto assessed the Paasio government and his own term as finance minister in December 1967, he stated that the remedies had been "painful" but that in his opinion the government had also achieved much and had changed society. He admitted humbly that the government had faced two great problems: structural unemployment and a change in social structure.

First-time prime minister

In the second half of 1967, during the Paasio government's term, Koivisto was in great demand. First he was chosen as the managing director of the Elanto retail chain and then as the governor of the Bank of Finland, the country's central bank. In genuine Koivisto fashion, he described his chances of succeeding in his new official post as "not very good", but he promised to try his best and to keep the interests of the nation in sight. He was even prepared to resign from the post if doing so would improve the situation.

The beginning of 1968 saw the start of a process which lifted Koivisto into the prime minister's seat. There was dissatisfaction in the party with Rafael Paasio's leadership style, and the party council thus decided with pro-forma unanimity that it was not appropriate for the same person to be party chairman and prime minister. Those behind this initiative - that of removing Paasio, who was regarded by many as too slow in his decisions - were successful in their aim. According to Kalevi Sorsa, Paasio later shunned Koivisto and suspected him of being involved in the dumping project. There is, however, no concrete evidence for this claim; and Paasio did, after all, support Koivisto for prime minister and for finance minister in a subsequent minority government.

Within the SDP, there were many twists and turns before Koivisto became the party's candidate for prime minister. Those who supported him pointed to his expertise in economic and monetary policy, his linguistic skills and his youth. Scepticism was aroused by his 'hard-cash policy' and his relations with the SDP's parliamentary group. By early March, however, Koivisto had become the party's prime-ministerial candidate. If one looks at the SDP's minutes, the process seems like a haphazard one. He came to the fore late, but unanimity concerning his candidacy was achieved swiftly. Decisive factors were Kekkonen's backing and Paasio's support.

Koivisto did not enjoy the same degree of backing as Paasio in the party organisation, but - partly because of this - his room to manoeuvre was larger. In the new government, Koivisto was surrounded by really strong representatives of other parties, and within a circle of experienced politicians, the prime minister looked new and still green. Koivisto's way of expressing his ideas both irritated and charmed people: some saw him as a 'shilly-shallier', others as a ponderer who brought out the relativity of alternatives and issues. Neither the strongmen of the Centre nor other figures turned in concert against the prime minister. The inclusion of the Finnish People's Democratic League (Suomen Kansan Demokraattinen Liitto: SKDL) provided a new type of room to manoeuvre.

Koivisto's government was forced to make important decisions - and it had the ability to do so. Soon after the formation of the government, an agreement on incomes policy was concluded. Other major decisions in the area of social policy were the act compensating farmers for leaving land uncultivated and the finalisation in parliament of an alcohol bill and a separate bill dealing with medium-strength beer. During the term of Koivisto's government, Finnish society rapidly changed from a tradition-regulated society into an urban and liberal one. The above-mentioned legislation was complemented by an abortion law.

The uncertainty and lack of security caused by rapid change led to dissatisfaction, and this was aimed in particular at the parties in government. With the exception of the Swedish People's Party (Svenska Folkpartiet), the government parties suffered losses in the 1970 elections. The biggest loser was the Centre Party. The biggest winners were the Finnish Rural Party (Suomen Maaseudun Puolue: SMP) and the conservative National Coalition Party (Kansallinen Kokoomus). The popularity of the prime minister was in clear contrast to the election results, since an opinion poll conducted in 1970 showed that Koivisto, with a rating of 29%, was more popular than President Kekkonen at 12%. And his most serious rival, the Centre Party's Ahti Karjalainen, scored only 7%. One factor behind the prime minister's popularity was a new medium - television. Koivisto appeared, for example, as a guest on the popular current affairs series Jatkoaika ('Extra Time'). He presented himself in a frank, boyish, unceremonious manner but at the same time left the impression of a reflective and fundamentally aloof new type of political leader who did not lack the tactician's political eye, either.

The Koivisto government's term was affected by serious problems in the fields of foreign and trade policy. The first crisis came with the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union on 21 August 1968. Koivisto dealt it in a fashion admitting various interpretations, and he put what had happened on a more general level when he stated that it brought out the uncertainty, even the evil, of the world. He has also said that he wept a number of times while driving from his summer home to the city. The question of whether to order electric locomotives from the Soviet Union or in Finland also constituted a tough decision for the SDP in particular, as the Tampere metalworking industry would be involved in any domestic order. The prime minister placed the issue on the general level of Finnish-Soviet trade and rejected the claim that the Soviet Union was practising colonial politics in its trade. The ordering of an atomic power station was in the same category as that of the locomotives, though the situation was different in that bids were made by Britain and Sweden as well as by the Soviet Union, and all these countries were able to point to broad economic relations.

Nordek - the Nordic economic area - became an issue demanding solutions in Koivisto's view. He considered integration important for economic development, and to him as a social democrat, Nordic co-operation meant more than it did to other key figures. Since foreign policy was generally the province of the president and the foreign minister, Koivisto's involvement with Nordek was greater than was usual. To judge from a column written by Kekkonen under the pseudonym Liimatainen, this aroused envy and possibly also a plan to use foreign policy to trip up Koivisto. Thus Fagerholm said sarcastically of Koivisto's position, "The man is being forced to say what he thinks; and that is extremely dangerous". Koivisto believed that it was not possible to sign the Nordek treaty, because the Soviet Union was strictly against this. At least according to a later reading of the situation by Kekkonen, Koivisto did want to sign, so that the blame for the failure of the plan could be placed on Denmark, which aspired to membership of the EEC. Koivisto, however, has denied saying anything similar to what Kekkonen noted down in his diary. After the 'night frost' in Finnish-Soviet relations in 1958, Kekkonen was cautious, keeping abreast of the plan from the backstage and supporting it for as long as the Soviet Union did not adopt an attitude of firm opposition. He used Koivisto as his shield but did not wish the Soviet Union's influence to become public.

Koivisto's first government came to an end with the elections of 1970. The rapid change in the structure of occupations had not only opened up opportunities but had also left behind victims. On the edges of government, the cultural radicalism of the young had gained momentum and created its own opposing forces.

Koivisto or Sorsa?

After the elections in 1972 that followed the dissolution at the end of the previous year, Kekkonen asked Rafael Paasio to form a government, and when attempts to form a majority government failed, Paasio formed a Social Democrat minority government. Its first finance minister was Koivisto and its foreign minister Kalevi Sorsa, who had bagged an impressive total of more than 22,000 votes in the elections. Thus the SDP now had two rising politicians who enjoyed great support. In the Paasio government, Koivisto was to a certain extent in the same position as he was as governor of the Bank of Finland - a 'cooler-down'. Despite this, he continued to top the opinion polls, ahead even of Kekkonen.

In the contest between Sorsa and Koivisto, Sorsa took the lead except in the opinion polls. The 1970s may justifiably be called 'Sorsa's decade'; but at the same time they were also the decade of Kekkonen's power. Sorsa clung to Kekkonen, and his power was seen as being dependent on the will of the president, despite the fact that he was twice prime minister and twice foreign minister - and also, from 1975, the chairman of the SDP. For his part, Koivisto broke loose from Kekkonen, who regarded him as his rival and did not like his reflective way of expressing himself. Koivisto and Sorsa became natural opponents with the approach of the mid 1970s, when - after the first oil crisis - the balance-of-payments deficit began to increase rapidly as foreign prices rose. Koivisto's aim at the time was to bring the balance of payments into equilibrium, so that the Bank of Finland would not be financing the growth of the deficit. It was obvious that differences in outlook were developing between the prime minister and the governor of the central bank. These arose from their positions; but there were other aspects involved as well - aspects which the media were quick to take up.

Sorsa has stated that as early as about 1976 he had become convinced that the party could not "squander" Koivisto's popular support. According to Sorsa, he and Koivisto had already agreed before the 1979 elections on Koivisto's becoming a presidential candidate. Some people believe that agreement was reached later - according to some, not until right before the meeting of the SDP's party council in 1981 at which Koivisto was named as candidate. Sorsa was also attracted by this solution because of the result of the 1978 elections for the electoral college: Koivisto had scooped up 19,570 votes and Sorsa 10,468. When Koivisto became prime minister in 1979, his support rate was overwhelming compared with those of other potential presidential candidates.

Second-time prime minister

At the end of the decade - and especially after the 1979 elections - there was increasing dissatisfaction with the ageing president and the lack of change. In this situation, Koivisto became prime minister with the enhanced prestige conferred by the position of governor of the central bank, as a favourite standing out above others in the opinion polls, and as an expected future president. In a survey carried out before the elections, Koivisto was the clear favourite for prime minister. He was clearly in the lead as far as all his non-socialist opponents were concerned, while amongst supporters of the SDP and the SKDL he was in second place. Koivisto himself commented on his choice as follows: "When people have wanted to change the content of politics, and this has proved difficult, they satisfy themselves with changing persons."

Two almost diametrically opposed explanations have been offered for Koivisto's becoming prime minister. According to one, Kekkonen had decided on him as a possible successor; according to the other - that of Koivisto's rivals Virolainen and Karjalainen - Kekkonen wanted him to fail in his difficult task. Both interpretations may actually be correct. Kekkonen's position fluctuated.

As prime minister, Koivisto introduced the concept of 'low-profile politics' in attempting to hold the government together. By his own account, he tried to preserve co-operation within the Left and its relations with the trade union movement. Attempts to topple the government were made from both within and without. In the first months of 1981, Kekkonen began to regret Koivisto's appointment as prime minister and to lean towards the side of those who wanted to get rid of him; however, Koivisto received support for his government from other quarters. In spring 1981, representatives of the Centre seem to have had knowledge of Kekkonen's worsening health, and this led to an attempt to bring down the government so that Koivisto would not be able to conduct an election campaign from the position of prime minister. At the critical moment, however, Koivisto received support from the SKDL, and the president no longer had the energy to topple the government when Koivisto refused to resign. After Kekkonen withdrew from his post because of illness, Koivisto was able to launch his election campaign from the position of acting president.

The people choose Koivisto

During the election campaign, Koivisto was questioned on two issues in particular: on the nature of his socialism and on relations with the Soviet Union. To a journalist's question - intended to be a difficult one - on the issue of relations with Moscow, Koivisto replied that they were nothing to boast about; and this answer merely increased his popularity. Koivisto did not wish to be elected with the support of Moscow. His answers to 'what-sort-of-socialist' questions were more verbose: the time was ripe, he said, to elect a president who was a social democrat but not tied to his party.

Participation in the 1982 elections for the electoral college was exceptionally high: the figure for those voting was almost 87%. Electoral college candidates on Koivisto's lists received over 43% of the vote. Many Koivisto supporters wanted to be sure that the electoral college member to be chosen really did vote for Koivisto, and thus an extremely large number of votes were captured by his wife Tellervo, an electoral college candidate in the Helsinki electorate, and his daughter Assi, a candidate in the Uusimaa electorate. Koivisto amassed 167 members of the electoral college and was elected in the first round. Of these, 145 were members of his own electoral alliance, 21 came from the electoral alliance of the SKDL's Kalevi Kivistö (11 of whose doctrinaire communist members did not vote for Koivisto despite Kivistö's recommendation), and one was the only college member gained by Veikko Vennamo, the presidential candidate of the Rural Party (Maaseudun Puolue). Koivisto's popularity beyond party boundaries is indicated by the fact that the independent members of his lists, or those who had not previously been prominent in politics, received a large number of votes. In the 1988 election, support for Koivisto was even greater than in 1982.

Change and continuity

The beginning of Koivisto's term as president was characterised by high expectations that he would be different from Kekkonen; but at the same time there was strong pressure for the preservation of continuity. After all, Koivisto's strength lay in the fact that unlike others he was not firmly tied to a party. His relationship to the media was an uneasy one: he was a favourite in the polls; but this was offset by the fact that he criticised journalists for being "lemmings", becoming irritated with the media and also attempting to escape from their clutches.

On becoming president, Koivisto began to 'parliamentarise' the president's status and prerogatives, attempting to exercise influence from the background and not to intervene in so many matters as Kekkonen had done. Despite this, Koivisto states in his book Kaksi Kautta ('Two Terms') that he refused to "be presented with faits accomplis". He was extremely indignant at a secret agreement made before the 1987 elections by some politicians of the Centre, National Coalition and Swedish People's Parties to the effect that a non-socialist government must be formed in Finland. The agreement was provided with a basis in parliament when the Left lost ground in the 1987 elections. But Koivisto was not content to play a predetermined role. Thus Koivisto, Kalevi Sorsa and the National Coalition's Harri Holkeri, who received the post of prime minister, agreed on the formation of a 'blue-and-red' government by the SDP and the National Coalition. For the National Coalition, it was important to get into government, and the president worked actively to put his arrangement into practice.

Koivisto's strong outbursts of anger also illuminate his personality in a more general fashion. He controls himself for a long time, but when the eruption comes, it is surprisingly powerful, and sometimes occurs within surprising contexts. A well-known example is Koivisto's indignation during the christening of the Finnish-built cruise ship Royal Princess in England in 1984. His wrath was perhaps more on behalf of the institution of the presidency than of himself as a person. The public were interested only in Princess Diana, who had been invited to the occasion, and the Finns did not even get into the same stand with her. Koivisto's irritation was increased by the fact that some princess-infatuated Finns kowtowed to her as if they were at court.

It has not always been easy for Koivisto to make his ideas and objectives understood. Something that still rankles is the criticism by public prosecutors and Chancellor of Justice Korte over alleged minor abuses of power. In part, it was precisely because of the change of atmosphere brought about by Koivisto's election that a start was made to cleaning up the Kekkonen-era "customs of the country". At the same time, matters of a formal and juristic nature came strongly to the fore. In the case of Koivisto, there were fears of a lynching mood; but the president's word was so strong that the accusation threshold rose and the prosecutors, whose position was a very lonely one, became cautious and perhaps even overcautious. Research has not yet clarified whether policy with regard to the "customs of the country" and to minor abuse of power led to the economic criminality of the severe recession.

Although Koivisto acted to enhance parliamentarianism, he nonetheless also strove to influence domestic politics - and especially economic policy - from the background. In the latter area he had long experience in the necessity of brakes, but also in the problems of applying them. At the end of the 1980s, the swing from an overheated economy to recession caused the Bank of Finland and even Koivisto to stick for some time to old recipes, but he also participated in breaking out of this pattern. In 1993, when a financial crisis loomed, he tried to prevent the economic crisis from turning into a political crisis by working against the resignation of the government - by "defending the government against itself". Thus, under conditions of recession, Koivisto worked energetically behind the scenes. His defensive actions included supporting the Centre-led government of Esko Aho and the young prime minister himself against the governor of the Bank of Finland, Rolf Kullberg; thus, at least in this respect, Koivisto fulfilled his task of supporting parliamentarianism.

The president's foreign policy

Koivisto's time as president was one of very great change, despite the fact that he initially adhered to the foreign policy laid down by Kekkonen - perhaps even overdoing continuity. Like Kekkonen, Koivisto strove to forge close links with the leadership of the Soviet Union - even when that country was disintegrating - so as to be able to benefit from these relationships. As in the Kekkonen era, attempts were made to predict the Russians' opinions, to avoid conflicts and to prevent the emergence of any situation where the authority of a great power was called into question.

Koivisto's caution drew especial criticism in relation to the push for independence by the Baltic States. It was indeed a cautious approach, since Koivisto did not believe that the Soviet Union would disintegrate; he thought that a realistic alternative was support for an increasingly liberal and democratic Soviet Union and for Mikhail Gorbachev. Since the Second World War, caution had entrenched itself in the Finns as a basic attitude; they had much more to lose than did the Baltic States. Koivisto warned against making any promises that might encourage the Baltic peoples. He thought that if conflict arose, the encourager would have to stand by them.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in autumn 1991, a great change of course occurred under Koivisto's leadership. In September 1991, Finland became free of the FMCA treaty and of some restrictions imposed by the Paris Peace Treaty, and oriented itself towards membership of the European Union and co-operation with NATO. In 1991, Koivisto calculated that it would be possible for Finland to join the European Union. Thus the play-it-safe man became the leader in radical changes when he thought that the time was ripe.

According to the foreign minister Pertti Paasio, Koivisto kept a close eye on foreign policy in his capacity as president. Speeches of the foreign ministry and also those of other ministries concerning foreign affairs were vetted by the president; and this was no mere formality: revisions of content were made. Like Kekkonen, Koivisto sometimes circumvented a minister by maintaining direct contact with civil servants.

Koivisto's unique career was influenced by the encounter between circumstances and a personality. In the early 1980s it was natural for Finland to acquire a pragmatic social democrat as president. Kekkonen's exceptionally long presidency created challenges which Koivisto was regarded as having to face. A reflective president who listened to his audience was well-suited to dealing with the dissatisfaction aroused by a man who had operated by means of commands and blistering letters.

An industrious memoir-writer and polemicist

Since his time as president, Koivisto has been hard at work on his memoirs, two of which deal with his presidency. The year 1994 saw the publication of Kaksi kautta 1: muistikuvia ja merkintöjä 1982 - 1994 ('Two Terms 1: Memories and Notes'). This contains a collection of documents, speeches and discussion memoranda, with a commentary by the author aimed at making understandable his use of power in domestic politics. The second volume, Historian tekijat ('Makers of History'), which deals with foreign policy, appeared in the following year. In this work Koivisto gives prominence to his contacts both with the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev and with the US president George Bush, thus indicating his involvement in political events on a global scale.

In 1997, Koivisto presented his political career up to the end of his first period as prime minister in Liikkeen suunta ('The Course of a Movement'). This book provided some contrasts to the sixth volume - Taistelu puolueettomuudesta ('The Struggle for Neutrality'; 1996) - of Juhani Suomi's biography of Kekkonen, published in the previous year. Suomi dealt extensively with Nordek, and Koivisto's response included the assertion that Kekkonen's diary entries did not contradict the picture that he, Koivisto, had of Kekkonen's statements or even actions. Koivisto also rejected Suomi's view of the early 1970s as "years of danger". He also stated that Kekkonen had intervened in governmental affairs without the prime minister's knowledge.

In 1998, Koivisto published his memoirs dealing with his childhood and youth, at the same time placing his personal experiences within a wider context of events. These memoirs throw light on Koivisto as a person from a new angle.

In autumn 1999, Koivisto took a stance rare in Finland by criticising NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia. For this action, he was awarded a peace prize by the Committee of 100. On the other hand, the former president also came in for sharp criticism, and this created a new atmosphere for discussion. After all, Koivisto had earlier complained that "the president's toolbox did not contain a hammer so small that its blow did not sound like [that of] a sledge-hammer". Formerly it was possible to regard criticism of a president's statements as criticism of the institution and an undermining of its status; but a change in the constitution enabled criticism even of a president's statements of opinion.

In autumn 1999, Tellervo Koivisto published fragmentary memoirs in which she admitted that she had suffered from depression. The memoirs also opened up a human and personal view of Mauno Koivisto and of the ambience in which the president was forced to live.

Hannu Soikkanen

Translated by Roderick Fletcher


Mauno Henrik Koivisto, born 25.11.1923 Turku. Parents: Juho Koivisto, carpenter, and Hymni Sofia Eskola. Wife: 1952 - Taimi Tellervo Kankaanranta, economist, born 1929, wife's parents: Johannes Einari Kankaanranta, farmer, and Olga Maria Saarinen. Child: Assi (Allonen), born 1957, economist.

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