Tarja Halonen Biography

President of Finland

Born Tarja Kaarina Halonen, December 24, 1943, in Helsinki, Finland; daughter of Vieno Olavi and Lyyli Elina Loimola Halonen; married Pentti Arajärvi (an attorney), August, 2000; children: (with Kari Pekkonen) Anna. Education: Earned master of laws degree from the University of Helsinki, 1968.

Addresses: Home —Helsinki, Finland. Office —Office of the President of the Republic of Finland, Mariankatu 2, 00170 Helsinki, Finland.


Social affairs and general secretary, National Union of Finnish Students, 1969-70; attorney, Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions, 1970-74, 1975-79; joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of Finland, 1971; parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Kalevi Sorsa, 1974-75; elected to the Helsinki City Council, 1977, and served until 1996; SDP member of parliament, 1979-2000; minister of social affairs and health, 1987-90; minister of Nordic cooperation, 1989-91; minister of justice, 1990-91; foreign affairs minister, 1995-2000; elected president of Finland, 2000; reelected, 2006.


Voters in Finland elected Tarja Halonen as their country's first female president in 2000, but her re-election campaign six years later received some unusual media attention outside of Scandinavia. In the fall of 2005, American television personality Conan O'Brien turned the resemblance between himself

and Halonen into a recurring gag on his nightly NBC show. O'Brien even traveled to Finland a month after Halonen's narrow victory at the polls to meet the left-leaning Social Democrat in person. Asked by Newsweek 's Nicki Gostin if he felt he had any influence on the election, O'Brien joked, "I either helped her to win or almost caused her to lose."

Halonen was born on Christmas Eve of 1943 in Helsinki, Finland's capital city. Her parents named her "Tarja" a Russian variant of Darius, the ancient Persian leader. The name was not on the official list of girls' names at the time, and was an even more unusual choice given the fact that at the time of her birth, Finland was at war with the Soviet Union in the latest of a history of skirmishes with its powerful neighbor to the East. The Halonens lived in Kallio, a part of the city that had traditionally been home to factory workers and their families since the late nineteenth century.

Like many of her postwar generation, Halonen was active in a number of leftist political movements during her time as a student at the University of Helsinki. She continued her involvement with such organizations after she earned a master of laws degree in 1968, and took a job with the National Union of Finnish Students as its social affairs and general secretary. In 1970, she was hired by the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions as an attorney, and formally joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP; in Finnish Suomen Sosialidemokraattinen Puolue ), Finland's most powerful political entity, a year later.

In 1974, Prime Minister Kalevi Sorsa appointed Halonen to the post of parliamentary secretary, which she held for one year before returning to her job as a labor attorney. In 1977, she won a seat on the Helsinki City Council, and would serve five terms in all. Two years later, she was elected to the Eduskunta , Finland's unicameral parliament. Her first cabinet post came when Harri Holkeri, the new prime minister, appointed her to serve as minister of social affairs and health in 1987. From 1989 to 1991 she held the post of minister of Nordic cooperation, and was Finland's justice minister between 1990 and 1991. After 1995 elections, which returned SDP to power, new prime minister Paavo Lipponen named her to serve as minister for foreign affairs. She earned high marks during her five years on the job, particularly for standing firm against a proposed membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a collective defense unit created in the aftermath of World War II.

In 1999, Halonen announced her intention to run for the presidency in the coming year's elections. Participation by Finnish women in government, even at the parliamentary level, dated back to 1907, a year after Finland became the first European country to grant women the right to vote. By the 1990s, the country boasted some of the most impressive statistics in the world for the number of women holding elected office or appointed government posts. The first female candidate for Finland's presidency was Helvi Sipila in 1982, and 12 years later the country's then-minister for defense, Elisabeth Rehn, narrowly lost to Martti Ahtisaari, whom Halonen would succeed.

In the 2000 contest, Halonen was one of four women on the ballot for president, but her main foe was a fifth candidate, former prime minister and head of the Centre Party, Esko Aho. Because that party drew much of its support from outside Finland's cities, Aho courted votes from more conservative rural Finns by highlighting the differences between himself and Halonen. She was a single parent who had never married the father of her daughter, Anna, was estranged from the Lutheran church, and had once headed Finland's leading gay-rights organization in the 1980s. In the January 16 voting, neither Halonen nor Aho won the necessary majority, and a run-off election took place on February 6 in which Halonen squeaked by with 51.6 percent of the vote. She was sworn in as Finland's first female president on March 1, 2000.

Changes in Finland's constitution had recently reduced the powers of the president, relegating them to the domestic sphere, but Halonen remained commander-in-chief for the country's military forces, and voiced her opinion on foreign affairs when she deemed it necessary. She became known for frankness as well as for a rather down-to-earth personality, which resonated deeply with the characteristically sensible Finns. Her official Web page featured photographs of her two cats, Rontii and Miska, and when she was dubbed "Moomin-mamma" by the Swedish press—after a motherly cartoon character—the nickname took hold in Finland. A few months after taking office, she wed her longtime partner, attorney Pentti Arajärvi, in a private ceremony.

Halonen ran for reelection in January of 2006, and won a second six-year term after another run-off, this time against National Coalition Party candidate Sauli Niinistö. Again, it was a close election, with Halonen besting Niinistö in the January 9 contest by just three percentage points. Her campaign attracted an unusually high degree of international press attention thanks to Halonen's frequent mentions on Late Night with Conan O'Brien , which airs on one of Finland's cable-television channels. The jokes began in October of 2005, after the red-headed host was told that he resembled Halonen. "We decided to do a split screen and I've never gotten a laugh like that, " O'Brien told Gostin in the Newsweek interview.

As election day in Finland neared, O'Brien endorsed Halonen's bid for a second term and even produced mock political ads that skewered Niinistö and her other opponents. A few weeks after her election victory, O'Brien traveled to Finland, where Halonen presented him with an award for most entertaining television personality of the year, based on a public poll conducted by the country's equivalent of TV Guide. A crowd of 2, 000 Finnish fans greeted him at the Helsinki airport when he arrived for his fiveday visit, with one holding a banner that read, according to the New York Times , "Tarja is our president but Conan is our king."


Financial Times , July 10, 2000, p. 2.

Independent (London, England), February 8, 2000, p. 15.

Nation , April 10, 2000, p. 20.

Newsweek , March 13, 2006, p. 71.

New York Times , February 13, 2006.

Presidents & Prime Ministers , May 2000, p. 16.

Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), May 13, 2004, p. 14.

Carol Brennan

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