Lifted by Ukraine war, Finnish academic Mika Aaltola to run for president

By Anne Kauranen and Essi Lehto

HELSINKI (Reuters) – Finnish foreign and security policy think-tank chief Mika Aaltola, a political outsider whose profile has been boosted by his role as a TV commentator on the Ukraine war, said on Thursday he would run for president in NATO’s newest member.

Finns will go to the polls on Jan. 28 next year to elect a president to replace Sauli Niinisto, 74, who is required to retire after leading Finland’s foreign policy for two consecutive six-year terms.

“Finland clearly needs vision. New foreign policy has emerged, turbulence has occurred and there’s a lot more to come,” Aaltola, 54, told Reuters in an interview ahead of the announcement, referring to Finland’s swift foreign policy U-turn to join the NATO military alliance following neighbour Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The president is the commander-in-chief of Finland’s defence forces, represents Finland in NATO meetings and leads foreign policy in cooperation with the government.

Aaltola has never been a member of any political party, but began surging in presidential polls – even topping one last year – in a spontaneous response to his rising popularity as a TV analyst of the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We need to unlearn our strategic silence, which I’ve sometimes called strategic haziness. We have a somewhat stoic reputation abroad,” said Aaltola.

Aaltola wants Finland to remain a strong supporter of Ukraine, to bring its defence spending close to, “if not above”, 3% of its gross domestic product, he said.

He also supports storing U.S. weapons on Finnish soil and building a new Arctic railway line to guarantee NATO access in strategically important northern Finland.

Aaltola, a political scientist and Columbia University graduate who has lead the Finnish parliament’s foreign policy institute FIIA since 2019, came third in the latest opinion polls commissioned by local media in May, behind former Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto and Bank of Finland governor Olli Rehn.

All three candidates have opted to run independently, which means they need to collect 20,000 signatures to formally enter the race.

“It’s not about how much you are on TV but rather about how you use that time,” Aaltola said, before a fan interrupted him, asking to have his picture taken with the presidential hopeful.

(Reporting by Anne Kauranen and Essi Lehto; Editing by Alex Richardson)