January 28, 2024, 10:00 am | Politics, President


Mika Aaltola comes from outside traditional politics, but in some circles is considered a political wizard.

When he is not running for the next Finnish president, he is in charge of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, a research institute with a sole mission to produce top-level topical information on international relations and the EU.

After following Aaltola’s campaigning since last November, it has become clear that he is a true gentleman, greeting everyone with a smile and a handshake. Sometimes a hug.

He speaks straight and does not hold back on his opinions, whether in an election panel on live TV or in freezing weather of nearly minus 30 degrees Celsius.

But are Finns ready for the next president who knows foreign policy as if inscribed in the grooves of his palm but has never debated in the Plenary Hall or the government box?



The weather was freezing on Friday afternoon, two days before the presidential election, in downtown Helsinki in front of the Kamppi shopping mall, and only one presidential candidate stood outside the warm campaign booths of a few other candidates, greeting people and exchanging views.

It was not the first time that Mika Aaltola, 54, was the only candidate standing in the cold, his campaign banner flapping in the cold wind. In early January, the temperature was almost minus 25 degrees Celsius, and he was also the only candidate standing in the freezing weather among the campaign volunteers of other candidates in Hakaniemi Square.

“I didn’t see any other presidential candidates here. I promised to come. And here I am,” he said firmly when the reporter asked where the others were.

Mika Aaltola campaigning in the Hakaniemi Square on January 8, 2024. Photographs: TONY ÖHBERG/FINLAND TODAY / Click to view the gallery.

Does it matter if the potential commander-in-chief of the Finnish Defense Forces is comfortable in Finnish winter weather? During his campaign, Aaltola has also braved icy conditions in more northern places, at least in Kuopio, Tampere, Jyväskylä and Oulu. Wherever he went, he was greeted with hearty handshakes and hugs.

Just like in Helsinki on Friday.

At the Narinkka Square, he was met by people of all ages. 16-year-olds wanted to exchange political views on the horrors of wars around the world, while others just wanted to take a selfie.

“Can you believe that of all the candidates I got a selfie with Mika Aaltola?” a couple of boys giggled on the way to the mall.

“I will vote for Mika because he is a non-aligned politician and he knows what he is talking about when it comes to foreign policy,” said Onni Luoma, 24, from Helsinki.

Mika Aaltola campaigning at the Narinkka Square on January 26, 2024. Photographs: TONY ÖHBERG/FINLAND TODAY / Click to view the gallery.

Mika Aaltola’s presence is large but warm. He stands over 190 centimeters tall. He is the director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and is on leave to run for president.

If he were not a political researcher, and if I did not know him better, I would imagine him to have a career in basketball, or maybe inside the squared circle in the heavyweight division of boxing.

But in real life, he seems more at ease than someone who engages in sports for adrenaline junkies. He is a thinker. And people and pols listen.

Here’s an example of his thinking in an excerpt from his third book (not counting his many scholarly publications), published last November: Havahtuminen — Turvallinen Eurooppa (Waking up — A Secure Europe).

“Finland needs its reputation in the world. A small player cannot afford to be some shabby and xenophobic nation on the edge of Europe. Of course, this does not mean that we should open our borders to everyone. We can be selective, and we have been.”

He’s also an “outsider,” coming from outside the political parties; he’s like you and me, but he was able to bring together 30,000 people for his constituency association who are entitled to vote (ten thousand less was the minimum), which makes him eligible to run for president without being a member of a registered party, and a man with years of doctoral-level experience in foreign policy.

“From outside the machines, the route is difficult, but not impossible. A path for non-party candidates has been created to strengthen democracy. It is true that I would not be honest to join a party for the sake of the election. It is also true that the road is rocky when you are alone against very old and highly networked machinery,” Aaltola wrote in the aforementioned book.

Mika Aaltola and his spouse, Kirsi Aaltola, attending the Finnish Sports Gala on January 11, 2024. Photograph: TONY ÖHBERG/FINLAND TODAY

Mika Aaltola has lived in the United States for over eight years. He has worked as a professor and researcher in the country and previously completed his first degree there. Watch a sample of Aaltola speaking in English about religious peace at an election panel in Helsinki in November 2023. Video: TONY ÖHBERG/FINLAND TODAY

Let’s take a deeper look at the values of what Aaltola stands for.

“If a definition of my values is sought, I consider rooting for the Nordic welfare elements, where the less privileged and minorities are encouraged and defended, where everyone has the right to a dignified life from cradle to old age, and where the interests of future generations are not disregarded,” Aaltola described on his campaign website.

“Similarly, Finnish identity and national pride are virtues I hold dear and am proud of. When channeled correctly, they are a source of strength through which this nation has overcome challenges. Most recently, citizens’ determination to steer Finland towards NATO membership as the threat from Russia grew.”

Russia is a subject Aaltola has spoken a lot about in panel discussions, interviews and books.

He has said that we must not only prepare for Russia but also arm ourselves. According to Aaltola, preparedness is the best defense. As a president, he would lead the discussion on permanent defense spending of more than 2% of GDP. According to Aaltola, this would be a signal to the Russian president that Finland takes itself and its defense seriously.

As president, Aaltola would also like to start a discussion about abolishing dual citizenship between Finland and Russia. Not to deprive the 40,000 Russians with dual citizenship in Finland of their Finnish citizenship, but to help them get rid of their Russian citizenship, which in some cases can also be a security risk.

Aaltola calls the practice of granting dual citizenship to Russians, which began in 2003, a mistake and a liberal daydream. (For comparison, Russia doesn’t grant dual citizenship to Finnish citizens.)

Because of his long career in foreign policy, Aaltola calls himself a veteran of the Russian pressure. He rarely hears anything new from the Eastern front.

A young man approached Aaltola at the Educa fair on Saturday at the Helsinki Expo and Convention Center after the last election panel, and the presidential candidate met him with his usual warm smile and handshake.

“Tomorrow we officially go and vote with our son, Geo,” Aaltola said.

“Who is Geo going to vote for?” the young man asked.

“Yes, that would be interesting to see. He’d probably put something on it. He can draw number 7 because he’s been taught to do that,” Aaltola smiled.

Geo turns two this year.