If selfies were votes, Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb would sail back into office after Sunday's general election. But as it stands, his National Coalition party will be lucky to scrape back into power as a junior player.
His fate is in striking contrast to the mob scene the ex-Europe and foreign minister is causing in a downtown Helsinki shopping centre.
As Stubb inspects entries in a young entrepreneur competition, teenagers abandon their stands to clamour for photos. One young woman holds beneath their faces a wooden sign reading “Ministry for Selfies”, summing up Stubb’s dilemma in this election campaign.
Finnish voters are undecided on whether the hyperkinetic, marathon-running politician is a cosmopolitan breath of fresh air or an immodest self-promoter who believes more in his own brand than their domestic concerns.
On one point almost all agree: Alexander Stubb (47) is a most unlikely figure in Finnish politics.
Bertolt Brecht noted that the Finns have two national languages – Finnish and Swedish – and are silent in both. But the multilingual Stubb is rarely lost for words. As well as some 16 books, dozens of academic articles and interviews, he writes a blog, maintains a lively Twitter feed and even pens a column for Finnair's inflight magazine. In what's left of his spare time he runs, cycles and swims.
Far more comfortable inside the Brussels beltway than the Finnish fray, Stubb’s hopes of becoming Finland’s next European commissioner were dashed when prime minister
took the job for himself. After a fight for the party leadership last June, he inherited a poisoned chalice premiership.
By this stage Finland’s six-party, left-right coalition from 2011 was falling apart. On the campaign trail Stubb has complained of being “bound by shackles from the left”, a dig at his Social Democrat (SDP) partner’s block on economic and healthcare reforms.
Stubb now hopes he can be finance or foreign minister in the new administration. To his Helsinki shopping centre audience, he repeats his personal maxim: “Dream; believe; work hard; succeed.”
To do that, he has to beat out the SDP for the affections of the opposition Centre Party and its chairman Juha Sipilä, the likely new prime minister.
More reserved and sober than Stubb, Sipilä is a self-made millionaire with few illusions about the challenges he faces: a three-year economic slump, rising debt and jobless rates, sinking competitiveness and an uncertain situation with neighbouring Russia. Polls give Sipilä a five-point lead and a choice of coalition partners, allowing him to play them off against each other while revealing little in his election campaign.
He promises to replace the recent tax-and-spend era with a business-friendly environment of tax and red-tape cuts to boost the economy.
“I have a lot of experience on how to manage companies, to make big changes. I think that the rule is the same [in countries],” he says. “You have to have vision, targets and concentrate on a few things.”
After the new government decides how much it needs to cut from its budget – estimates range from €2 billion to €6 billion – it remains to be seen whose idea for implementation wins out.
Demands from Centre Party liberals such as Olli Rehn for front-loaded austerity do not go down well outside Helsinki, where the Centre Party is strongest.
“Centre voters are divided, with the grassroots preferring a Social Democratic approach,” said Prof Kimmo Grönlund of Åbo Akademi university in Turku. The SDP proposes a mix of cuts and stimulus over two electoral periods.
“When we’ve had bourgeois Centre governments in the past, they always lost out in the end.”
While Sipilä’s choice of main partner will colour Finland’s economic policy, he will, at 23 per cent in polls, need a third coalition partner, possibly the right-wing populist Finns.
The new prime minister’s aim will be to guarantee a majority comfortable enough to push through tough reforms without having a coalition too large and unwieldy to manage – the weakness of the outgoing coalition.
looking inward to fix its economic problems, few expect any dramatic movements on foreign policy. This week’s Nordic defence minister proposal for a joint defence alliance to face off a “Russian threat” sparked displeasure in
. For Markku Kivinen, director of the
think tank, it was an “unwise provocation” and Russia’s reaction was no surprise.
Finland's outgoing defence minister Carl Haglund was quick to distance himself from his own idea this week, insisting it contained mostly old, non-binding aspirations.
Though the Russian chill has seen renewed demands for neutral Finland to join Nato, mainly from Stubb, most analysts here believe alliance membership is once again on the back burner.
Post-election Finland will focus on fixing its economic fundamentals.