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T a r j a  H a l o n e n
Finland's first woman president

Tarja Halonen, the 11th President of Finland and the first woman to hold her country's highest position, was inaugurated for a six-year term on 1 March 2000. A former Foreign Minister and a social democrat in political background, she defeated the non-socialist candidate, former Prime Minister Esko Aho, in the second round of the popular vote. A Member of Parliament since 1979, she was also the first woman to become Foreign Minister.

Tarja Halonen has a reputation as an independent spirit who goes her own way. As an unmarried mother she raised and educated her daughter Anna, who is now reading international politics in England. Her interest in the affairs of society not only led her into politics, but also brought her important positions in numerous civic organisations. Not even when she was running for the presidency did she falter on points of principle concerning her personal life, even though it was widely believed that a woman who had relinquished her membership of the (semi-established) church and was living in a nonmarital cohabitation would scare off voters. Yet, even before the election, opinion polls were indicating that a majority of the people would be prepared to accept Tarja Halonen as their leader.

The relationship between the head of state and her partner did cause a minor headache where protocol was concerned. At official functions, however, Pentti Arajärvi - a senior civil servant at Parliament - was received naturally in the same way that a spouse would have been. Then, in late August, the two married in a simple and very private ceremony conducted by an official from the Helsinki registry office. An impenetrable veil of secrecy had been thrown over the event, which took even the press completely by surprise.

President Tarja Halonen has lived for most of her life in the Helsinki district of Kallio, once working-class, but now pretty well gentrified. She matriculated in 1962 and took a law degree in 1968. Before going into politics she held several jobs, including one as a lawyer with the country's biggest trade-union confederation SAK. She has held ministerial office longer than any other Finnish woman and before taking over at the Foreign Ministry held the social affairs and justice portfolios. In the latter post she was again the first woman.

As a leader, Tarja Halonen has been described as generous and possessing a sense of humour, but also as demanding and exact. Indeed, she describes herself as demanding, "If you do something, do it properly," she says. Anecdotes about her colourful language are still told in the corridors of the Foreign Ministry, where people are accustomed to a more formal way of life.

President Halonen avoids unnecessary ostentation, and there is no doubt that this will have a knock-on effect on life at the Presidential Palace. The nation had a foretaste of the new style already during the inauguration ceremonies. Having raised her glass in a toast with Speaker of Parliament Riitta Uosukainen, the new President was horrified at the stiffness of the people all around her. "Couldn't we get into a somewhat looser formation?" she asked. Uosukainen, herself a highly charismatic character, immediately got into the spirit and barked the order "Spread out!" to the officials.

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In keeping with tradition, the President's first state visit was to Sweden. Accustomed to their royals, the Swedish media were interested enough in the President as a woman, but did not give her many marks for style. According to one paper reporting on her arrival at the airport, "with her pearl necklace and carrying a large handbag, she looked like Moomin Mama." Her evening dress drew criticism, but also praise: "Tarja Halonen showed that she has her own style. She didn't give a damn about her evening costume." Her own response to the criticism was: "For a woman it is important to have a big enough bag to carry all the stuff she needs."

The headlines about her hats and bags seem at most to amuse the President, whose profile and the respect she commands are founded on solid expertise. Already during the election campaign she highlighted her most important values: democracy, a welfare society and the rule of law. She can contribute to defending these values on a level above that of day- to-day politics.

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When 150 heads of state - more than ever before - assembled at the Millennium Summit in New York in September 2000, Tarja Halonen co-chaired the meeting with President Sam Nujoma of Namibia. Another Finn, Harri Holkeri - who played a big part in the Northern Ireland peace process - is now presiding at the 55th session of the United Nations.

See also:
WTF-O Greetings from President Tarja Halonen as WTF turns 40
Official website of the President of Finland