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.