Women's candidate puts Finns first: After Sunday's polls, Elisabeth Rehn can look forward to being the next president, Annika Savill writes from Helsinki

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The Independent Online
ELISABETH REHN is a combination of motherliness and glamour, tailor-made to draw the Finns out of the national neurosis that has gripped them over the past few years. Because she is a woman and a member of the 6 per cent Swedish-speaking minority, nobody had expected a month ago that she would survive the first round of the presidential election last Sunday.

But not only was she one of the two candidates to make the second round following a spectacular rise in the polls in the past two weeks; she is widely tipped to win the run-off on 6 February over Martti Ahtisaari, the veteran UN diplomat.

Mrs Rehn, one of the world's few female defence ministers, has understandably played down the fact that she represents the Swedish People's Party. The Swedophone minority is often accused of constituting a snooty elite, a legacy of the day when the country was ruled by Sweden before the Russians annexed it in 1809. Finland has not had a Swedish-speaking president since C G Mannerheim, the Second World War saviour of the nation.

Mrs Rehn explains that her campaign was launched not by her party but by a feminist movement called 'The First Woman'. She is careful to speak Finnish, not Swedish, in the presence of Finnish-speakers. As Defence Minister, she took a decision to buy US F-18s despite intense lobbying to opt for Swedish air force Gripens. Her campaign has involved being pulled in sleighs by dogs across the Finnish countryside; one of her theme tunes has been Charlie Chaplin's 'Smile (though your heart is aching)'.

No anti-Swedish sentiment matches the Finnish wariness of Russia. With the increasing muscle-flexing across the border, that wariness is on the rise again. Should she win, Ms Rehn told the Independent, her main job would be 'to give the Finnish people security. That is the job of a Finnish president. Both as regards outside threats and inside threats. They should feel safe and look to the future. I have a feeling Finns are a bit masochistic about their problems, instead of looking forward.'

This is not just a reference to the more than 20 per cent unemployment rate (following the loss of 60 per cent of the former Soviet export market in 1991). Though she does not spell out by name the decades of Russian political domination, her manifesto leaves no doubt as to what has to change: 'The more information that emerges about political behaviour in Finland in the near past, the greater the sense of discomfort. All too often, Finland's fate has been ruled behind the backs of the Finns. The outside influence on the choices Finland has made has been unacceptable.'

As if on cue, it emerged on the eve of polling day that the Russian ambassador in Helsinki had delivered a note to the Finnish government asking it to detail the activities of two 'Greater Finland' associations advocating a return to pre-1939 borders. To many Finns, this bore echoes of the 'note crisis' of 1961, when an exchange of ostensibly threatening missives took place between Helsinki and Moscow. It has since been alleged that the then president, Urho Kekkonen, orchestrated and then defused the crisis with the help of his Kremlin colleagues to strengthen his position.

On Saturday, Finnish politicians were too cautious to turn up the heat against Moscow. It was left to Carl Bildt, the Swedish Prime Minister, who happened to be in Helsinki, to react. 'Were one to be undiplomatic, the question of nationalistic tendencies appears far more relevant in the other direction, on the other side of the (Russian) border,' he said. This enabled Finnish ministers to get away with saying they 'concurred with Carl Bildt's statements'. Mother Sweden, it would appear, still has her uses.

(Photograph omitted)