Maya Kaul is an American Fulbright Finland Scholar who is conducting a review of STEM education reform in the context of Finnish teacher training. On a January evening in Helsinki, she saw President Niinistö's acceptance speech live – without planning it in advance.
Last Sunday, while walking around downtown Helsinki on our way to dinner, my colleagues and I noticed a line of people extending out of a prominent building in the heart of the city. There were around thirty or so fairly well dressed people patiently waiting under the light snowfall. For Helsinki on a Sunday night, this is enough to mark a crowd.
As we continued walking to the restaurant next door, we hypothesized what could be happening that would draw such a crowd. We eventually decided that it must have been a poll, and the crowd was waiting to vote in Finland’s presidential election. This was the first and only indication I had seen that a national election was even happening, apart from a few friends on Facebook who had marked themselves as “voting in the Finnish Presidential Election.”
My colleagues and I—all Americans in Finland as Fulbright scholars—enjoyed our traditional Finnish dinner of vendace, salmon, reindeer, and rye bread in a mostly-empty restaurant and talked about the election briefly. Having all only recently met, we did a careful dance around the topic of the last US presidential election before reaching the safe consensus that it was strange that there had been such minimal campaign ads in Finland.
As we stood up to leave, my colleague Aulikki—a Finn who had moved to the States 40 years ago—looked down at her phone with wide eyes before proclaiming, “Those people were not waiting to vote. They are there to see the president.”
I joked that we should also try to get in, but Aulikki agreed, un-phased. Even though I had already met the president once a few months prior at the American Embassy during our Fulbright Finland orientation programming, the excitement of meeting him on election night was not lost on me. I was doubtful that we would even get let in without some ticket or preauthorization—assuming they even took us seriously, given how underdressed we were, but I tagged along in any case. When I had met President Niinistö at the Embassy, I was prescreened, went through metal detectors, and was later informed that there was a heavy, mostly hidden, security presence at the event.
This time was different though.
After dinner, I followed closely behind Aulikki up the steps of the building we had seen the crowd outside before, hoping that perhaps she would be able to say something to the security guards in Finnish that might get us in the building. But when we reached the top of the stairs, the guard merely smiled at us before opening the door for us. Just like that, we were in.
At this point, Aulikki and I started frantically meandering the hall, trying to scope out if President Niinistö was indeed there, at one point accidentally cutting directly in front of the taping of a press interview. Amidst the sea of suit-clad crowd, we were clearly the only ones who had accidentally happened upon the gathering. I was confident at this point that the president was not coming, or else we would not have gotten in.
Aulikki finally asked someone working the event if we had missed President Niinistö, but we learned he was still scheduled to arrive. More specifically, we were told he was arriving at 10:13PM. So we grabbed a glass of wine and made our way to the front of the room to wait the remaining forty minutes. Again to my surprise, getting to the front of that room posed no challenge at all—the room was not completely full and even the press was relaxing against the main stage.
We watched the screen with election results—Niinistö was going win with a 50 percent margin, avoiding a runoff. I looked at the screen and counted the eight—eight!—candidates who had run in the election. We eagerly waited for his acceptance speech to be screened, before realizing that it inching closer to 10:13PM and he had not given the speech yet.
Soon enough though, music was blaring, and Niinistö was walking through the crowd, shaking hands and talking with people as he made his way to the stage. In shock, I felt the members of the press starting to push from behind me to get closer to the stage, where President Niinistö then proceeded to give his acceptance speech just a few feet away from me.
I did not understand the speech because I do not speak Finnish, but as I stood there, watching the press take photos I saw the next morning on major news outlets, I understood something even greater.
In the US, the early and constant campaign ads, 24/7 media coverage, and frequent scandal makes this sort of accidental involvement with an election anything but coincidental. One does not simply wander in to an event where the president will be, in the same way one is not merely able to forget a presidential election is happening. Despite this fact, turnout rates remain lower in the US than in Finland.
And yet, in Helsinki, I had found myself caught in the heart of the Finnish presidential election—entirely by accident.
Text: Maya Kaul