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Urho Kekkonen, president of Finland, 1956-81

Paasikivi's successor, Urho Kekkonen, assumed office in March 1956, and he remained as president until 1981. A member of the ML, he had been one of only three members of the parliament who voted against the Peace of Moscow in 1940. The following year, he had been one of the most outspoken advocates of the Continuation War. By 1943, however, he had reversed himself totally in calling for reconciliation between Finland and the Soviet Union, and he remained a leading advocate of that policy for the remainder of his life. From 1944 to 1946, he served as minister of justice, a position from which he prosecuted Finnish war criminals. Between 1950 and 1956, he served as prime minister in five cabinets, before being elected president in 1956.

Kekkonen was a great admirer of the natural environment of the north. He had been born in the remote forested northern part of Eastern Finland and had been brought up in modest economic circumstances. He nevertheless went to school in Kuopio, Lapinlahti, Iisalmi and Kajaani before entering the University of Helsinki in 1921 to read law. He had been to lumber camps with his father from the age of 12 onwards and he acquired a close love for and understanding of nature that lasted throughout his life.

While studying in Helsinki he joined the Ostrobothnian Students’ Association, which had roots going back to the corresponding association at the Turku Academy in the 1640s and counted among its earlier members such distinguished national figures as J.V. Snellman, J.L. Runeberg and Matthias Alexander Castrén. His active background in athletics took him to the Los Angeles Olympic Games of 1932 as leader of the Finnish team, and the following year, having been engaged in right-wing politics up to that time, he joined the Agrarian Party. He was elected to Parliament in 1936 and worked on the home front during the war as head of the Finnish Supplies Centre.

As Prime Minister in the early 1950s, Kekkonen showed a particular interest in supporting employment and economic development in his home province of Kainuu and in Lapland. He was an Agrarian Party representative for the province of Oulu in Parliament from 1945 to 1954 and also enjoyed widespread support in Lapland. It is significant that in its election manifesto of 1951 the Agrarian Party laid emphasis on “raising” living standards in Northern Finland to the level of those in the remainder of the country.

When the outdoor-minded president set out on his long skiing excursions on the fells of Lapland he would be followed by his train of skiers, an entourage of well established or emerging politicians and civil servants, leading administrators in the province of Lapland and industrial magnates. Altogether he made more than twenty of these large-scale excursions into various parts of Lapland. Eastern and Northern Finland were close to Kekkonen‘s heart, and he did all he could through the authority, means and attitudes that he could muster as a politician to promote the well-being of those regions.

Kekkonen demonstrated his mastery of politics by bringing Finland successfully through two major crises with the Soviet Union, the first in 1958 to 1959 (the Night Frost Crisis) and the second in 1961 (the Note Crisis). The Night Frost Crisis received its name from the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who declared that Soviet-Finnish relations had undergone a "night frost." The immediate origins of the crisis lay in Finnish elections of 1958, in which the SKDL won the largest popular vote and the largest parliamentary representation of all Finnish parties but was not given a place in the Finnish government headed by the Social Democrat, Fagerholm. As a result, the Soviets recalled their ambassador from Helsinki and generally made known their unhappiness with the Fagerholm government.

Two reasons are generally brought forward for this instance of Soviet interference in Finland's domestic politics. One was the Soviet dislike of certain Social Democrats, whom they referred to as "Tannerites," after the long-time leader of the SDP, Vainö Tanner. The second reason may have been the international crisis of the late 1950s that centered on West Berlin. Underlying the Soviet actions was the traditional fear of a German resurgence; the Soviets imagined a renewed German military threat's developing through Germany's North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners, Denmark and Norway.

Kekkonen defused the crisis by pulling the ML out of the government coalition, thereby toppling the SDP government that was objectionable to the Soviets. The alacrity with which Kekkonen placated the Soviets resolved the crisis.

The Note Crisis of 1961, far more serious than the 1958 crisis, constituted the most severe strain in Soviet-Finnish relations since 1948. On October 30, 1961, the Soviet government sent a note to Finland that called for mutual military consultations according to Article 2 of the 1948 FCMA treaty. For Finland, the note represented a real threat of Soviet military intervention. As during the 1958 crisis, a tense international situation coupled with Soviet fears of a German military resurgence led to Soviet pressure on Finland. There was also a domestic side to the crisis; as in 1958, the Soviets considered certain elements on the Finnish political scene to be objectionable. The Soviets were concerned about the SDP, especially about the SDP nominee for president, Olavi Honka. Delivered only two and one-half months before the Finnish presidential elections, the Soviet note demonstrated clearly which candidate the Soviets preferred. In response to the note, Kekkonen sought to placate Soviet fears by dissolving the Finnish parliament in November 1961. He then flew to Novosibirsk, where he met with Khrushchev and, after three days of personal consultations, succeeded in winning Khrushchev's confidence to such a degree that the call for military consultations was rescinded. The Note Crisis not only constituted a personal diplomatic triumph for Kekkonen but also led to an era of increased confidence-building measures between the two governments.

For Kekkonen, the lesson of the Note Crisis was that the Soviets needed continual reassurance of Finnish neutrality. He pointed out that Soviet mistrust of Finnish declarations of neutrality in the 1930s had led to war. After 1961, the Finns took great pains to demonstrate their neutrality and to prevent a repetition of the Note Crisis. The effort to win the trust of the Soviets led Kekkonen in two directions--expanded trade and cultural contacts between the two countries and a more active international political role in which Finland worked to promote peace in Northern Europe and around the world.

Kekkonen sought to create ever-wider zones of peace around Finland; thus, he became a determined advocate of an entirely neutral Northern Europe, a position he had enunciated as early as 1952. The Danes and the Norwegians, however, generally did not accept neutrality because they would thereby lose the military protection of NATO. In 1963 Kekkonen also proposed a Nordic Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone (Nordic NWFZ--see Neutrality, ch. 4). Kekkonen's advocacy of these peace issues helped him to win the virtually unquestioned confidence of the Soviets and precluded a repetition of the Note Crisis.

Conflict among Finnish political parties was so great that, during the twenty-five years of Kekkonen's tenure as president, there were twenty-six governments. Among these twenty-six governments were six nonpartisan caretaker governments, formed when conflicts among the parties became too intense to permit their joining in coalition governments. As during the years of the Paasikivi presidency, there was greater agreement on foreign policy issues than on economic concerns. An especially divisive issue was whether or not to link agricultural income, consumer prices, and workers' wages, and thus to reconcile the competing aims of the main sectors of the economy--farming, capital, and labor.

The conflict over domestic policies was also evident in the consistent strength of the protest vote in elections. The electoral vehicle of the communists, the SKDL, polled more than 20 percent of the vote in the 1958, the 1962, and the 1966 parliamentary elections. That same discontent brought about the emergence of another protest party, the Social Democratic Union of Workers and Small Farmers (Työvaen ja Pienviljelijain Sosialidemokraattinen Liitto--TPSL), which broke off from the SDP in 1959. The TPSL advocated both a friendlier stance toward the Soviet Union and more active measures to protect workers' and farmers' economic interests. In 1959 a breakaway group from the ML formed a party called the Finnish Small Farmers' Party; in 1966 its name was changed to the Finnish Rural Party (Suomen Maaseudun Puolue--SMP). Led by Veikko Vennamo, the SMP spoke for the so-called Forgotten Finland, the small farmers, mainly of northern and eastern Finland, who lived a precarious economic existence. The SMP made a breakthrough into the ranks of the major parties in the parliamentary elections of 1970 by winning 18 seats in the Eduskunta, but in following years its power fluctuated greatly.

Kekkonen's personal triumph in the Note Crisis led not only to his reelection as president in 1962, but also to the dominance, for a short time, of his own party, the ML. (From 1958 to 1966, the SDP was considered too anti-Soviet to be part of a government.) The ML provided the basis for the various coalition governments formed during those years. In its desire to be at the center of Finnish politics, the ML changed its name to the Center Party (Keskustapuolue--Kesk) in 1965. The presence of this large and important agrarian-based party at the center of the political spectrum has characterized the Finnish political system since independence. Fifty-four of sixty-four Finnish governments (through 1988) included the Agrarian/Center Party, compared with thirty-three for the SDP, and twenty-six for the KOK; furthermore, three of Finland's nine presidents, Relander, Kallio, and Kekkonen belonged to this party.

President Kekkonen exerted a formidable influence on Finland's development during his long tenure as president from 1956 to 1981. He was re-elected in 1962 and in 1968 by larger percentages of votes than any other Finnish president had ever received. In 1973 his term of office was extended for four years by special act of parliament. This extension, it now appears, was designed to reassure the Soviets that Finnish foreign policy would remain the same, despite the free-trade agreement with the EEC that was concluded in 1973. It was evidence of Kekkonen's international stature that he hosted the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe from 1973 to 1975, a conference that culminated in the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975. By then Kekkonen was generally recognized as indispensable to Finnish politics, and he was re-elected again in 1978 with the support of all major parties. Bad health forced him to resign in October 1981 at the age of 81; he lived in retirement until his death in 1986. His successor as president, the Social Democrat Mauno Koivisto, began his term of service in January 1982.

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Page last modified: 30-09-2019 13:56:21 ZULU