Sunday, January 29, 2012

Go Newt, Go Figure

After last weekend’s elections in Finland and America, both countries are closer to choosing a president.  In the case of Finland, a lot closer.  Practically done, in fact.  For the US, however, it is still a long slog, but with some fascinating twists sure to come. 

The Finnish poll turned out as expected with Sauli Niinistö getting the lion’s share of the vote, some 37 percent.  The Green Party candidate, Pekka Haavisto, also as expected had a strong showing, though squeaking into second place only 1% ahead of the third-place finisher, veteran politician Paavo Väryrnen.  Niinistö and Haavisto now continue to the next round, to be decided a week from today.  Early voting has already started. 

A couple of encouraging things to note from the first round.  “True Finn” Timo Soini came in a distant fourth with only 9.4% of the vote, a far cry from the nearly 20% his party garnered in the parliamentary election that shook things up so much last spring.  However, it might be wise not to read this as a complete repudiation (almost wrote refudiation there, shades of Sarah Palin!) of the xenophobic party that Soini represents.  The presidential race here has more to do with the individual candidate, not the party, which helps explain how Haavisto’s personal popularity outstrips the Green Party’s relatively low level of support (only 10 MPs in a 200-member parliament). 

The other positive takeaway was the turnout.  A few weeks ago, I heard a Finn lamenting how people here don’t bother to vote as much as they should, with a typical turnout (he said) of only 60-something percent.  That sounded low to me, though not bad compared to voter turnout in the US.  Average turnout is around 50% for US congressional elections, maybe more for higher-profile White House races, which is pathetic for a country that prides itself as the model of democracy. 

It turns out that the 60-something figure for Finland claimed by my friend is indeed too low.  In the first election round last Sunday, almost 73% of voters turned out nationwide, and even more in Helsinki.  I can’t help but boast a little that turnout in my neighborhood was a whopping 85%.  As I’ve said, Finns are a civic-minded people.

While the Finnish election was satisfying, the one in South Carolina was absolutely galvanizing.  I even stayed up to watch the coverage on CNN, which started at one in the morning Helsinki time.  When the voting ended an hour later, CNN was ready within minutes to declare Newt Gingrich the winner, a stunning comeback for the Georgian who had until a week earlier been badly trailing Mitt Romney in the polls.  Not only did Gingrich beat Romney, he trounced him by 13 points. 

The victory for Gingrich, which keeps him in the running and denies Romney an early anointment as GOP nominee, was bizarre.  And it highlights the bizarre, you could say even schizophrenic, nature of the Republican Party in 2012. 

The winner of the first 2012 Republican primary to be held in the conservative and religious South is a two-time adulterer who has most recently been attacking the GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney for being a capitalist tool.  Go figure.

Something like 65% of South Carolina GOP voters identify themselves as evangelical Christians, the most earnest and in-your-face type of churchgoers in a region that’s not known as the Bible Belt for nothing.  Yet by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, this devout demographic voted for a man who has traded in not only his wife three times, but also his faith.  He was born a Lutheran, became a Southern Baptist while in college, then converted in 2009 to the Catholicism of his current wife. 

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this; it’s just a bit ironic a deep-red, born-again state like South Carolina doesn't have a problem with it.  You could think that Gingrich’s flipping churches is his way of applying free-market principles to religion.  If a particular religion doesn’t serve your needs, why not shop around for one that does?  At least you have then given the matter of religion more thought than most people, who usually stick with the faith that was chosen for them by accident of birth.  That's the charitable way of looking at it.  When it comes to Gingrich’s ditching his first two wives, I'm afraid there’s no charitable way of looking at that.  None at all. 

This is beside the point anyway. It’s not that Palmetto State voters chose Gingrich because they admired his freewheeling attitude toward spouses or churches.  (After all, as people always like to point out, redemption is an important tenet of Christianity – good news for the occasional politician or clergyman caught with their pants down.) 

And South Carolinians’ enthusiasm for Gingrich probably has nothing to do with his critique of Mitt Romney’s money-grubbing business skills, which were dubbed “vulture capitalism” by leftist Rick Perry before he dropped out of the race.  South Carolina voters seem to be riled up for Newt mainly because they are mad as hell, and they see in Gingrich someone who not only shares their blinding anger at Obama and the Democrats, but also is also snarly enough to fight. 

If voters didn’t think so before, they saw the light when Gingrich lashed out at CNN debate moderator John King, who had the nerve to ask Gingrich about claims from Gingrich’s second wife that he had asked her for “an open marriage” so that he could carry on unhindered with his mistress Callista.  With that outburst, he won their hearts.

South Carolina may well turn out to be a fluke, however, since mainstream Republican leaders and pundits have piled on Newt, and polls in Florida, where voting next takes place on Tuesday, are showing Gingrich back in his familiar second place, far behind Mitt Romney.  Maybe even yesterday’s endorsement from Herman Cain won’t be enough of a boost to save Gingrich.  Come to think of it, a nod from Cain might be the last thing Newt needs. 

Anyway, I’ll probably be drifting off to sleep in front of the TV in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, watching to see how Gingrich fares in Florida.  Looking ahead, I can’t wait to see what happens with Gingrich on Super Tuesday in my, and his, home state of Georgia – not as diverse as Florida, but not as reactionary (I hope) as South Carolina. 

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  I have a feeling that by the time March 6th rolls around, karma will finally bite and Georgia Republicans will no longer have the option of voting for their native, and very prodigal, son.  

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Horse Races

It’s fashionable, and totally correct I might add, to carp about how politics – the very serious business of organizing how people are governed – is all too often reduced to a horse race.  Who’s up, who’s down, who’s ahead of whom in the polls, by how many points, yada, yada, yada.   

I have to confess.  I’m one of those bad people who love to view politics as a spectator sport, which probably points to a defect in my character or at least a sad statement on the state of my life. 

So, for a political junkie like me, this is shaping up to be a lost weekend at the racetrack.  There are gripping elections in both the US and Finland. 

Well, maybe it’s an exaggeration to say “gripping” in the case of the Finnish presidential election, which takes place tomorrow, Sunday.  Compared to the Las Vegas sheen of recent US campaigns, the election here in Finland is, let’s say, understated.  The numerous televised debates between the eight candidates have much more in common with Charlie Rose than American Idol.  In terms of squabbling, they haven’t even reached the level of the McLaughlin Group.  (I realize some of these public-affairs TV shows will be familiar only to political junkies like myself, so starved for entertainment as we are.) 

Also, you can make the case that the race for Finnish president doesn’t mean that much, since in Finland’s parliamentary system the president doesn’t have much power beyond setting foreign policy. 

Still, Finns are generally very civic-minded, so when they go to the polls to elect a president every six years they take it seriously, as they should.  And, with the political landscape in flux here, there’s probably even keener interest than usual in the outcome of this election.  The surprising success of the reactionary True Finns party in parliamentary elections turned Finnish politics on its ear last spring.  And the on-going European debt crisis keeps calling into question Finland’s role in the EU, as well as all kinds of domestic economic issues here. 

This uncertainty notwithstanding, there is practically no doubt who will win tomorrow’s election.  The conservative National Coalition Party’s Sauli Niinistö is sure to be the next president, according to polls, breaking the Social Democrat’s 30-year hold on the presidency.  (As a point of interest, the “conservative” party here occupies about the same spot on the political spectrum as the Democrats in the US.)  The weakness of the long-dominant Social Democrats is one of the biggest surprises in this race, as well as the projected poor showing of the True Finn’s candidate, Timo Soini.  

With the outcome seemly certain, the biggest question now centers on who will come in second.  In the Finnish system, if no one receives more than 50% of the vote, there is a runoff between the top two contenders.  With the vote being divided between eight candidates, it can easily happen.  Many people I know are voting for Pekka Haavisto, the hugely popular candidate of the Green Party, hoping he’ll make it to the second round. 

Haavisto, who is openly gay, seems to have been propelled to second place in the latest polls by his personal favorability, which is much higher than the level of support the Green Party itself enjoys.  As the results come in on Sunday, we’ll all be watching to see how good the news is for Haavisto and how bad it might be for Soini, who is running a distant fourth in the polls and has no chance of making it to the second round. 

Before then, an even more interesting question will be resolved – who wins in South Carolina.  Like Ground Hog Day, what happens today will decide whether “spring” has come for Republicans, or if they might have to slog through six more months of GOP winter.  The conventional wisdom is that a win by frontrunner Mitt Romney in this deeply conservative state, and the first in the South to vote, will settle the issue. 

Romney’s anointment seemed like a done deal until this past week, when feisty Newt Gingrich surged in the polls and bumbling Rick Perry narrowed the field by quitting.  I’m on pins and needles about this.  I can’t say for sure whom I want to win.  I’m hoping that Republicans, after carefully vetting each candidate and weighing their true devotion to conservative values, will choose the man absolutely best suited to go up against Obama in November, and lose. 

Many Tea Party Republicans hate Obama for pushing through “Obamacare” health insurance reform, which was largely modeled after “Romneycare”, created by none other than Mitt Romney.  I relish the thought of Tea Party supporters, who want to kick out the president because of Obamacare, having to vote for the man who made the template for it. 

As great as it would be to see Republicans face that dilemma, I still worry that Romney comes across as reasonable (dare I say, sane) enough to be a real threat to Obama.  So, imagine my excitement by the prospect of Newt regaining his vigor in South Carolina and giving Romney a real run for his money.  For all his presidential good looks and slick operation, Romney lacks the passion that true conservatives seem to be searching for, the passion needed to win their hearts.  Passion is one thing that Newt has – an abundance of it, in fact.  He is so passionate about so much that it can be heartbreaking at times – just ask the two ex-wives he cheated on. 

We now have the titillating possibility of Gingrich winning South Carolina, staying in the race and, who knows, catching enough fire and momentum to ride Tea Party anger and resentment all the way to the convention in Tampa.  Thinking what a spectacle a race between Obama and Newt would be, I have no choice but to "endorse" Newt Gingrich as the GOP candidate.  (Now, there’s a game changer!)  Still, given how surreal US politics have become, there’s a little voice in my head that says, “What if he actually wins?” 

Then, sweet Jesus help us all.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The End of Christmas

This past Friday was one of those days when Finns are treated to a free holiday thanks to this being an officially Christian nation.  Friday was Epiphany, a religious holiday that is totally unfamiliar to a totally lapsed Baptist such as myself.  Still, as a quick look at Wikipedia will tell you, Epiphany is celebrated by many non-protestant Christians as the day that three visitors from the East arrived at baby Jesus’ cow shed, bearing gifts. 

The fact the Magi didn’t show up until January 6th would be surprising for many folks back home (or at least Baptists), since I suspect most Americans moved on from Christmas already a couple of weeks ago and have now set their sights on Groundhog Day.  Or maybe the Super Bowl. 

In Finland, the holiday is called Loppiainen, which basically means “the ending”, and though it does commemorate the visit of the Three Wise Men, in reality it’s typically the day when families across the land take down their Christmas trees and decorations.  My family often hangs onto our tree longer, waiting to throw it out only after almost every needle has dropped and what’s left is ready to spontaneously combust. 

As on Christmas Day itself, stores are closed for Loppiainen.  Except, maybe not any more.  This year, storeowners in parts of Finland received special permission to stay open on Friday because the opportunity for commerce was just too great to pass up. 

January 6th may be Epiphany for predominately Lutheran Finns, but it is Christmas Eve for Russians, who being largely Eastern Orthodox follow their own religious calendar.  It’s a huge holiday for Russians and a great excuse for dashing over to Finland to take advantage of the after-Christmas sales here.  It was reported that on Thursday alone 50,000 Russians passed through border crossings in southeast Finland, an all-time one-day record. 

This trend has exploded in recent years.  Finland lies less than 180 kilometers (115 miles) from St. Petersburg, a metropolis with a population equal to all of Finland (about like that of Boston) and has become a shopping mecca for newly affluent Russians.  As strange as it might seem to me, the prices of popular must-have items such as iPads are supposedly lower here than in the Russian homeland, enticing more and more Russians to come here to shop.  And, they do shop.  In a Helsinki mall, a Russian teenager interviewed by a Finnish newspaper explained that she had 2000 euros (2500 dollars) to spend on her holiday visit here.  Or at least, she continued, her parents were hoping it wouldn’t be more than that.  

It is all very different from when I first came here in the early 1980s.  In those grimmer Cold War days, the few Russians I saw in Helsinki where usually gazing out at the city through the foggy windows of clunky busses operated by Intourist, the official Soviet travel agency founded by Joe Stalin, as they made their way to the (formerly) leftist-affiliated Hotel Presidentti, the main accommodations for Soviet visitors back then. 

Out on the street, Soviet-era Russian visitors always traveled as a group, and I still recall seeing them standing, as a group, before a shop window staring at Western goods they could never hope to buy.  There was, however, at least one store in those days where Soviet tourists could afford to shop – Anttila, a discount place just around the corner from Hotel Presidentti and apparently within the hard-currency budget of visitors from across the Iron Curtain. 

Now nearly 30 years later, Russian visitors come in far greater numbers and are more likely to arrive in their own SUV, not packed in a grungy bus.  And they are no different than any other foreign visitors to Helsinki, except they don’t come only in the warm summer months.  And I suspect they spend more money than the average tourist in Finland, reflecting how live has improved for Russians compared to the 1980s, or at least for some. 

Anttila is still around, though today it’s a quite normal department store chain.  Other shops, such as Tarjoustalo and Hong Kong, have taken Anttila's place as discount retailers, though I suspect these shops are not feeling the boost from the Russian holiday trade nearly as much as fashionable and sprawling Stockmann and other swanky stores. 

No doubt, the overall boost to sales is good news for the Finnish economy and certainly a big enough incentive for stores to open their doors on Epiphany for those visitors from the East who aren't bearing gifts, but instead looking to buy some.  

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A New Year

We’re already a week into the new year.  I guess I’ll get used to it.  Sometimes it seems odd to think we’re already two years into this decade, twelve years into this century.  A friend of mine often used to repeat a favorite phrase he’d heard when he lived in Africa:  “Time, she flies.”  Yes, she does. 

We spent this New Year’s Eve even more quietly than normal.  Every December 31st when our kids were small, we followed the same well-worn routine.  Potato salad and hot dogs for supper, some sparkling wine for the grownups, and then after spending an hour or so outside shooting some fireworks, we’d come inside to melt tin. 

The melting of the tin is an old Finnish tradition.  The idea is to melt pieces of “tin” (actually a lead alloy) in a special ladle and then toss the liquefied metal into cold water.  This instantly freezes the tin into any number of random, odd shapes, from which – amazingly enough – you can predict your fortune for the coming year.  A mass of tin with a rough surface, for example, points to more money in your future. 

This is a bit like the tradition back in Georgia of eating black-eyed peas at New Year’s to ensure prosperity for the next year.  (Coincidentally enough, I happen to be listening to the Black Eyed Peas as I write this.  No joke.)  

This year, with our nest even more empty than normal, we had a subdued celebration.  We couldn’t even melt tin like we used to, after our kitchen renovation this summer.  Now we have an induction stove, which doesn’t work with our aluminum ladle.  I even considered using my camping stove, firing it up on the kitchen counter, a bit like my brother and our hiking companion did years ago in a motel room in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to boil water for hot rum toddies one winter's night.  It wasn’t good idea then, and not a good idea now – as my wife was quick to point out.

I didn’t follow my usual practice of buying – against my wife’s wishes – a packet of rockets for the one night of the year you can legally shoot them.  We didn’t even bother with our stash of smaller fireworks left over from previous years.  Without snow, shooting fireworks would have anyway been a problem this year.  Usually, there’s almost a foot of snow everywhere in our neighborhood, providing the perfect surface for sticking rockets or roman candles into to hold them upright.  This year, there was only bare and hard ground, which requires the use of store-bought or improvised rocket “launchers”.  We weren’t motivated enough to buy or improvise any such contraptions.  

This year, we just enjoyed the potato salad, hot dogs and sparkling wine, while watching the New Year’s programs on TV, before moving upstairs, as midnight approached, to watch fireworks from the balcony window. 

Obviously, not everyone in our neighborhood was as deterred as we were by the lack of snow, and the countdown to midnight culminated, as it always does, in a climax of fiery streaks screaming into the black sky to explode in booming, technicolor bursts. 

It’s hard to say whether there were more or fewer starbursts in the sky this year, though the next morning the air wasn’t as thick with the smell of gun smoke as most years and I didn’t see nearly as much rocket debris.  (Often, the last of the blackened tubes of cardboard that are scattered across the neighborhood on New Year's Eve appear only during the springtime snowmelt).  In any case, our neighbors treated us to a display of pyrotechnic celebration loud and flashy enough to compensate for our own low-key welcoming of the New Year.  

Happy 2012!