A NEW KIND OF PRESIDENT FOR AN ERA OF CHANGE
Former Ambassador of Finland to the United States of America
Martti Ahtisaari was elected the tenth President of independent Finland in February 1994. This election marked a turning point in the history of the Finnish democratic system. For the first time, the President was elected by direct popular vote, rather than indirectly through the electoral college system. The election campaign had already reflected this change.
Finnish society, like the world as a whole, is undergoing a profound transition. New visions and tools are needed, and new leaders, too. The Finns wanted a new leader for this period of change. Martti Ahtisaari proved well suited to this situation. He campaigned by seeking support not through the old political system, but directly from the people. His themes were openness, interaction, and renewal in political life, and determination to tackle the unemployment problem. He was able to convey this message better than professional politicians. Most people saw him as an entirely new type of a political leader. As a matter of fact, his whole earlier career had been on the fringes of politics, not inside it.
Martti Ahtisaari was born on June 23, 1937, in the city of Viipuri, which is now on the Russian side of the border in part of the territory ceded to the USSR after the Second World War. His father, a naturalized Finn of Norwegian extraction, led the life of a military man as a non-commissioned army officer. Martti Ahtisaari went to school in the north of Finland in the commercial and industrial centre of Oulu. He graduated from teachers' training college and contemplated a career as an educator. The young teacher was eager to see the world, however, and suddenly, an opportunity presented itself. The Swedish Agency for International Development was looking for a young, industrious hand for an educational project in Pakistan. Ahtisaari got the job and worked in that country for a few years. It was an experience that changed the future course of his life.
Back in Finland in 1963, he worked briefly for an international students' organization. In 1965, he joined the newly established Department for International Development Cooperation at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. He worked his way up to Deputy Head of Department and was appointed Ambassador to Tanzania in 1973. Serving at the same time as Ambassador to Mozambique, Somalia and Zambia, he developed a vast network of African contacts. His African friends put their trust in him when the United Nations sought a Commissioner for Namibia. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Javier Perez de Cuellar, appointed Ahtisaari to serve as Commissioner and as his Special Representative to Namibia, which was still under South African rule but on its way to independence. Ahtisaari performed an almost impossible feat in helping Namibia to attain independence without any rupture in the social fabric of the nation. He succeeded by a combination of firmness and conciliation.
Ahtisaari's term came to an end in 1984. He returned to Helsinki to serve as Undersecretary of State for international cooperation with developing countries. In 1987 the Secretary-General of the UN called upon Ahtisaari once again. He was appointed Under-Secretary General for Administration and Management, but also retained his position as Special Representative for Namibia. Now the Namibian march towards independence was on its final leg and entering an extremely delicate phase. All went well, however: Namibia became an independent country and held free and fair elections. Namibia is clearly one of the of the United Nations' success stories, Martti Ahtisaari played a key role in that process. The young nation made him an Honorary Citizen of Namibia.
In 1991, it was time to come home again. He took over the post of Secretary of State at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, its highest civil service position. But in 1992, the UN again needed Ahtisaari's negotiating and mediating skills, and he was appointed Chairman of the Bosnia-Hercegovina Working Group of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia.
Although Ahtisaari had never played an active role in domestic politics, he was known to be aligned with the moderately left-of-centre Social Democratic Party. As a son of Oulu, where he graduated in 1959, he was drafted by local party committees to run in Social Democratic primaries to be the party's candidate in the 1994 presidential elections. This was the first time that the party held primaries to elect its official candidate. Mr. Ahtisaari won the primary, to the amazement of most political pundits. He launched a powerful campaign and was elected president with a comfortable margin.
There has been much debate on the position of the President of Finland since Urho Kekkonen resigned in 1981 after holding the office for more than a quarter of a century. His successor, Mauno Koivisto, was inclined to interpret the political role of the President more narrowly than his predecessor and also worked actively to reduce some of the constitutional prerogatives of the President. Against this background, it is understandable that the views of his successor were awaited with interest. President Ahtisaari has taken the role of an active political leader, especially in the new international circumstances confronting Finland now that EU membership has taken effect. Foreign and security policy has traditionally, and also under the Constitution, been the key sector of activity for the President. At times there was heated debate on the question of whether Finland's EU policy was to be pursued under the leadership of the Government and Prime Minister or whether it was part of the customary role of the President. This debate has now ended. Finland's constitutional laws divide these functions between the President and the Government, and Finland will also handle its EU membership on this basis.
President Ahtisaari has continued the direct contacts with the people begun during the election campaign. Regular visits to the various regions of Finland have given the President an opportunity to meet the people directly, and not through political organizations. Thus the President is not only the first Finnish head of state chosen directly by the people, but also a political leader who is personally familiar with the concerns and interests of citizens. The people appreciate this approach, and this is reflected in the continued high popularity of President Ahtisaari.
President Ahtisaari is married to Eeva Ahtisaari, née Hyvärinen, a secondary-school history teacher. They have a son, Marko, who is studying philosophy in the United States.
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