Halonen, Tarja Kaarina

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Tarja Kaarina Halonen

Finnish Social Democrat Tarja Halonen (born 1943) became Finland's first female president in February of 2000. The former foreign minister and career politician had long been noted for her straightforward manner and independent style. And although her presidential race had been close, Halonen soon established herself as one of Finland's most popular leaders.

Political Leftist

Halonen was born to Vieno Olavi Halonen and Lyyli Elina Loimola on December 24, 1943, in Helsinki, Finland. Growing up in the working class district of Kallio, both her name and her birth date gave her an early incentive to effect change. "When I was a little girl, the name 'Tarja' was not yet in the almanac," she told George Kerevan of the Scotsman. "And what more do you need to begin changing the society than being born on Christmas Eve and having a name that isn't in the calendar." (Tarja is a Russian form of the name "Darius.") Such whimsies, however, could not have overridden the fact that Halonen was also born during World War II, in a city that was under attack by Russia's Red Army. Although Finland did emerge as a democracy in the aftermath of the war, its people did not soon forget the 1939 invasion through which the country stood largely alone.

Like many young people of the 1960s, Halonen became involved in leftist causes and once counted activist Che Guevara among her heroes. She attended the University of Helsinki and graduated with a master of laws degree in 1968. The following year, Halonen worked as the social affairs and general secretary of the National Union of Finnish Students. In 1970, she became an attorney with the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions.

Halonen became a member of the Social Democratic party in 1971, and she continued to work for social change. Among the many organizations she joined in that pursuit were the International Solidarity Foundation, the Iberian–American Foundation, the Finland–Nicaragua Association, and the Finland–Chile Association. Issues of international solidarity and social justice would remain integral to her entire political career.

Political Career

Halonen began her political career in earnest in 1974, when Prime Minister Kalevi Sorsa appointed her parliamentary secretary. She held that position for a year. In 1977, she was elected to the first of five terms on the Helsinki City Council (serving until 1996), and 1979 saw her elected a member of parliament (MP) for the first of five consecutive terms (until 2000). After five years in parliament, Halonen began to attain more visible roles. From 1984 to 1987, she was chair of the Social Affairs Committee. From 1991 to 1995, she was deputy chair of the Legal Affairs Committee, and she served as chair of the Grand Committee in 1995.

Parallel to Halonen's service in parliament were her increasingly high–profile positions in three cabinets. First, she was minister at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health from 1987 to 1990. That was followed by her appointment as minister of Nordic cooperation from 1989 to 1991. In 1990, she became minister of justice for one year. Then in 1995, she was chosen as minister for foreign affairs, a post she held until her election to the presidency in 2000. As foreign minister, Halonen got high marks from her countrymen. Among her more applauded efforts in the role were a successful term as president of the European Union (EU) during the second half of 1999 and a steadfast opposition to Finnish membership in NATO. She made her views about the latter quite clear in a 1997 interview with the Europeans. "Finland has decided to remain outside military alliances and to maintain a credible national defence. I cannot see how another alternative could create more stability. This is something that the political leadership and the people agree on." Three years later, she had only softened her views on the subject by a very small margin when she told Christopher Brown–Humes of the Financial Times, "I have not said, never, but I have said, not now."

Despite a political career that continued to grow in prominence and popularity, Halonen retained a strong independent streak and was not one to bow to convention. She had married and divorced along the way, rearing her daughter as a single mother. In a strongly Lutheran country, she was firmly estranged from the church. Her politics, including her outspokenness for gay rights, remained radical to many Finns, especially those in rural areas. Even her personal relationship raised eyebrows, as she lived with her longtime boyfriend, Pentti Arajarvi, without benefit of clergy. (They did marry after her election to the presidency). But none of these idiosyncrasies blocked Halonen's political ascent.

First Female President Elected

In 1906, Finland became the first European country to grant women the right to vote. Some 94 years later, it elected its first female president. But Halonen's historic moment was not reached without a struggle.

At the start of the 2000 elections, Halonen placed only fourth in the polls. Her arch rival, conservative former Prime Minister Esko Aho, made much of her unconventionality and leftwing positions, especially to his rural constituents. Still, by the January 16 election, Halonen had 39.9 percent of the vote, compared to Aho's 34.6 percent. That was not sufficient to win, however, as over 50 percent of the vote was required for victory. Thus, there was a tense runoff election between the two on February 6. This time, Halonen captured 51.6 percent of the vote, as opposed to her opponent's 48.4, and she became Finland's first female head of state. She assumed office as her country's 11th president on March 1, 2000.

While Halonen's landmark win was hardly a mandate, it was mainly attributed to her ability to attract the conservative women's vote and her straightforward demeanor. The Cincinnati Post quoted Finnish former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, head of the Social Democrats, as saying, "Halonen is a person who with her own individuality, her openness, and her genuine character appealed across party lines." Whatever the reasons behind her victory, she was soon to become immensely popular across the board.

Unconventional and Wildly Popular

Shortly before Halonen took office, Finland adopted a new constitution that shifted more power to parliament, while limiting the president's authority as to domestic affairs. Although the president's role was still very operative in the foreign arena, Halonen soon made clear that she intended to be a figurehead in neither venue. Nor did she deny that the needs of her people might turn out to be at odds with the power she retained at home. "While parliament has reduced [the president's] direct power, the expectations and demands by the people for the president to have a role in domestic policy have increased," she told Brown–Humes. In any event, the president's wings had merely been trimmed, not clipped, and Halonen maintained control of such vital domestic institutions as the military.

Just after Halonen's election, Arajarvi was asked about the couple's marriage plans. He admitted that the subject had been discussed, but told Rupert Cornwell of London's Independent, "I will not propose in public, nor will I say in public whether I will do so." Nonetheless, whether to appease convention abroad or for completely unrelated reasons, the pair was very privately wed in August of 2000.

Halonen's wedding proved to be one of the few concessions to her new job that she was willing to make. On the whole, she conducted herself as she always had. Her stance on campaign issues such as the Nordic welfare society, human rights, and the environment remained unchanged. Indeed, she had been largely consistent about her causes for most of her career. Nor did her personal style alter. Salty language, impatience with ostentation, and a singular fashion sense were still hallmarks. She maintained a keen interest in the arts, swimming, and her pet cats and turtle. All of this contributed to a perception of great accessibility and directness that endeared Halonen to the public. The Swedish press nicknamed her "Moominmamma" after a maternal cartoon character created by the late Finnish artist and writer, Tove Jansson, and Finns took the moniker to heart. Halonen's approval ratings often ranged between 94 and 97 percent, sometimes slipping to a "mere" 85 percent. In 2004, she became the only living person to ever be included on a popular television special nominating the top ten greatest Finns. In short, Halonen was one of the most popular presidents Finland has ever had.

Beyond her huge popular appeal, Halonen earned the respect of colleagues and peers both at home and abroad. By 2004, she had accumulated no fewer than nine honorary degrees from universities ranging from the Chinese Academy of Forestry in Beijing (2002) to Ewha Women's University in the Republic of Korea (2002) to the University of Bluefields in Nicaragua (2004). She had also garnered such accolades as the Ceres Medal from the United Nations organization for agriculture and food, FAO, (2002) and the 2004 Grameen Foundation USA–Deutsche Bank Humanitarian Award for her "global vision and humanitarian perspective." Kerevan rightly described Halonen as a woman not to be underestimated: "Don't be fooled—the president of Finland is no conformist figurehead. In a nation of blondes, she is a fiery redhead." Halonen was also sensitive to her presidency being an inspiration to Finnish women. "It's not just women, but small girls," she told Brown–Hume. "I have had hundreds of letters from them already. And I hope I can encourage them."

With a typical irreverence and sense of fun, Halonen summed herself up aptly when appearing onstage with James Brown, the "Godfather of Soul," in Helsinki in 2003. Declining to sing with him, CBS News quoted the president as saying, "Thank you for coming here Mr. James Brown, but I am not a showgirl." Perhaps not, but she did favor him with a dance.


Cincinnati Post, February 7, 2000.

Economist, February 12, 2000.

Financial Times, July 10, 2000.

Independent (London, England), February 8, 2000.

Nordic Business Report, July 15, 2002; September 17, 2004.

Scotsman, May 13, 2004.


"Funky Finn Gets Down with Brown," CBS News,http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/07/18/entertainment/printable563979.shtml (July 18, 2003).

"Halonen, Tarja Kaarina," Office of the President of the Republic of Finland,http://www.presidentti.fi/eng/persons/thcv.html (January 1, 2005).

"Interview with the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers," Europeans,http://assembly.coe.int/Magazines/Europeans/1997/te0197/tribune2.htm (January 1997).

"Mrs. Tarja Halonen," http://www.suuty1.edu.hel.fi/meidan–helsinki/halonen–en.htm (January 1, 2005).

"Tarja Halonen," Biography Resource Center Online,http://www.gale.com (January 1, 2005).

"Tarja Halonen—Finland's First Woman President," Publicscan,http://www.publiscan.fi/ec13e-1.htm (January 1, 2005).

"Tarja Kaarina Halonen," Office of the President of the Republic of Finland,http://www.presidentti.fi/eng/persons/biogr.html (January 1, 2005).

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