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SAULI NIINISTÖ – A MAN WHO KNOWS HOW TO BE A MAN OF THE PEOPLE

How much a person’s liked by their family, their friends and people generally isn’t determined by their efforts to be nice, or to be caring, or to be sweet, or to stand out. 

The key to their success is the tree they’ve sprung from, or more precisely the branch they’ve descended from, and a whole bunch of other circumstances: the circumstances in which they grew up, for example; the climate in which they grow.

Re-elected Finnish President Sauli Niinistö’s success story has received such a detailed public dissection in Estonia that it needs no repeating. Where we have most to learn is in his convincing victory. The most important thing is how you represent your people.

On Tuesday morning, just before I penned this article, I happened to be at Nop café in Kadriorg, where I was finishing up a working meeting. There I saw Evelin Ilves, who’d popped in for a coffee to go while out walking her dog Schubert. I asked her what she thought of Niinistö’s victory. “Equanimity won,” she replied. “People need equanimity. He’s a very nice man.” And she should know, having met the Finnish president a number of times.

The key quality of any senior politician, as of any monarch, is their amiableness. At training events I’ve once or twice asked those taking part what we can do to make ourselves more pleasing to an important audience. The right answer of course being that you mustn’t do anything that other people don’t like.

A trained lawyer, Niinistö has occasionally said things that have struck a nerve; the kind of things that have rubbed Estonians up the wrong way. Considered, precise and sharp. And yet sincerity is in his very nature, with no hint of him being out for himself or foisting his views on others. A number of important posts have shaped him into the man he has become – posts where the power of self-assertion has been the precondition for getting by.

Rooting for the people can be back-breaking


Niinistö doesn’t rub his people up the wrong way because he doesn’t deal with issues the Finns deem unimportant. He takes international criticism in his stride when he goes off to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, because he sees it as being in Finland’s interests. Estonian politicians entreating the Finns to join NATO isn’t something he takes seriously.

Where a head of state’s concerned, it’s important that the issues they raise touch as many people as possible. How influential you are doesn’t depend on changes in public opinion or even shaping and directing those opinions, but on rooting for the people.

This isn’t something everyone’s able to pull off, since the people can think or want things that clash with the views and desires of their head of state. The best example of this in recent years is Angela Merkel and the refugee crisis. Which is not to say that Merkel isn’t right or that she has no right to her own opinions, of course.

The personal views of a president/monarch/head of government/general are interesting, but from the point of view of the fate of the state and its people they are entirely secondary. If the people have given you a mandate, you have to represent the belief, the mind and the conscience of the collective. The votes in favour of Niinistö highlight the fact that he’s managed to make himself liked by very different segments of the electorate. That being his job.

Queen Elizabeth II hasn’t given a single personal interview in her life, not because she has nothing to say or because what she thinks is in any way uninteresting or unexciting, but because she places national interests ahead of her personal feelings. This only applies to the Queen’s public expressions of opinion, needless to say.

Niinistö: the man of more than 50,000 Estonian people


In her private conversations the Queen is free to express any thoughts she likes, although even that comes with certain risks – for the person she’s sharing them with. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to publicly apologise before the Queen because of his big mouth. He’d been caught on camera revealing to American billionaire Michael Bloomberg that the Queen had “purred on the other end of the line” when he’d informed her that 55% of Scots had voted to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Cameron admitted he was ashamed to have breached such long-standing protocol, according to which the content of conversations between the Queen and the Prime Minister are never spoken of.

Prior to the Scottish independence referendum Buckingham Palace had underscored the Queen’s neutrality and her firm belief that the vote was entirely a matter for the people of Scotland. Collective interest trumped personal sympathies.

Niinistö is probably just as adept at purring as the Queen. He’s certainly held views that have differed from those he’s aired in public, but the fact he didn’t air them, rubbing the people up the wrong way, is what’s made him great.

The choices that Finland makes are important to Estonia. Given that official statistics say Finland is home to 50,000 native speakers of Estonian, it represents, without doubt, the country with the biggest Estonian diaspora in the world – a diaspora which has grown exponentially in recent years. Finnish values, as embodied first and foremost by the President, wield significant influence on our values as well.

And if so many Estonians are making a beeline for Finland, there’s clearly something good, something attractive and something promising about the place. It can’t just be the salaries. “Rauha ratkaisee,” Niinistö has said. “Equanimity is the solution” indeed. Where ideas are concerned, too, it’s the case that some people are simply liked by the majority. Since even if their ideas aren’t the best, they’re better than the alternatives. Life in Finland, for example.