Art or politics?

16 February 2012 | This 'n' that

You’re going about your business in Helsinki Railway Station on a cold winter’s day — waiting for your train, buying tickets or newspapers or just taking short-cut through the building to keep warm – when suddenly the bloke next to you bursts into song. And not just him: along with a couple of dozen others, he makes the air ring with the patriotic song Finlandia, sung in harmony and perfectly in tune. (The video can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wO63xt2jWtc)

It’s surprising, it’s moving, but as turns out it’s more politics than art. This was a ‘flashmob’ event in which Finlandia was performed by a popup male voice choir, Mieskuoro Pekka, as part of the presidential campaign of Pekka Haavisto – aged 53, an MP representing the Green League of Finland (founded in 1987). A video of the event was rapidly posted on Haavisto’s campaign Facebook page – for the first time in these elections, social media were influential, particularly among young and urban voters.

Finlandia was composed by Jean Sibelius in around 1900, and  many feel it would be more suitable national anthem than the frankly rather insipid  Our land, written by the German composer Fredrik Pacius in 1848 (the same tune, confusingly, also serves as the national anthem of Estonia). At the end of the performance the choir members created a huge number two at the bottom of a stairwell – Haavisto’s number on the ballot papers.

In the event, Haavisto lost, when Sauli Niinistö (63), an MP representing the National Coalition Party (founded in 1918), gained 62.6 per cent of the votes, thus becoming the 12th President of Finland for the next six years, after Tarja Halonen’s double term of 12 years. Niinistö’s victory marks the end of an era of 30 years of Social Democratic presidency.

This was also the first time that a Green League candidate appeared in the final, run-off ballot. Remarkably, for a candidate from a new, originally single-issue, party, Haavisto gained 37.4 per cent of the votes; in Helsinki his share was as high 50.3 per cent.

The President is the archetypal national public figure, and his or her marital status and spouse will inevitably receive a great deal of media attention. As Haavisto has since 2002 lived in a civil partnership with the Ecuador-born Antonio Nexar Flores, the views of his more than a million voters can be said to be surprisingly liberal – in an age when Finland has sometimes been censured for illiberal attitudes towards immigrants, for example.

As regards what is probably his best-known composition, Sibelius complained: ‘Finlandia is not intended for singing, it’s composed for an orchestra. But if the world wants to sing, there’s nothing you can do about it.’

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