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Sauna: for Finns, the Smoke-Filled Room : Campaigners Talk, Make Deals and Court Supporters In a Relaxed Atmosphere

December 26, 1987|BENGT LJUNG | United Press International

HELSINKI, Finland — The issues in the Finnish presidential campaign may be dead as a doorknob, but that has not kept its participants from sweating out their strategies in the sauna.

In the seclusion of Finland's revered sauna, otherwise tight-lipped politicians open up, discuss and strike deals that Parliament has often only to ratify.

It is the premier Finnish political institution, helping forge a strong national consensus in a country whose 4.9 million people began celebrating 70 years of independence this month.

Full of idealism, Lenin gave Finland, a Russian grand duchy, its independence within weeks of the Russian Revolution.

But, after being attacked by the Soviet Union in 1939, the Finns joined the Axis, eventually losing two bitter campaigns to the Red Army. In 1948, maneuvering to survive as a nation, Finland signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union that since has guided relations between the two countries.

Nights of Sauna, Vodka

Finland's sensitive relations with its giant Communist neighbor stabilized during the stewardship of the late Urho Kekkonen, president from 1956 to 1981, who sometimes skipped formalities and invited Soviet leaders for long nights of sauna and vodka.

President Mauno Koivisto, a Social Democrat who is running for reelection early next year, turned to the sauna recently when he found himself at odds with the national press corps over interpretation of his statements. He invited selected journalists to a series of off-the-record sauna meetings at the Santahamina army barracks outside Helsinki and at the Kultaranta summer residence.

Suddenly, critical news coverage largely disappeared, and now Koivisto is heavily favored to win a second six-year term.

"The sauna meetings are very easygoing," said Olli Kivinen, foreign editor of Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's largest daily, and one of the sauna participants.

"We talk, and Koivisto just tells us what he honestly thinks, which is very good for background knowledge. But it's not like he is trying to influence us or make us run his errands," he said.

Kivinen conceded, however, that female journalists are left out of the exclusive, naked meetings. Their male colleagues, he added, loyally inform them afterwards.

Political scientist Sten Berglund of Helsinki University said the sauna plays a central role in resolving political differences.

Like a Game of Golf

"It's a relaxed environment where politicians and journalists meet to exchange views," Berglund said. He compared a trip to the sauna to an executive's game of tennis or golf in other countries.

"Many political decisions have been made in the sauna," he said.

What is said in the small wooden room, where a temperature of 195 degrees is the norm, is usually kept strictly confidential.

But Koivisto--in the laconic, reserved way of the Finns--downplayed the role of the sauna in modern politics, saying the hot-house sessions among government ministers are not what they used to be.

"The sauna has lost its importance," Koivisto said with a dismissive laugh. "When I was prime minister in the '60s, all ministers met once a week, on Wednesdays."

During Koivisto's second term as prime minister, between 1979 and 1982, fewer officials met at the sauna. One explanation, he said, was that officials had become more self-confident as pressure on them lessened and bilateral problems with Moscow evaporated.

"But the sauna is good because a man without clothes cannot be very stuck-up," Koivisto said.

Although Finns love their sweat bath on any given day, Koivisto said he had to be careful with uninitiated foreigners. Last summer, for example, Koivisto said French President Francois Mitterrand would not even take at a look at a sauna until his Finnish colleague had reassured him that it was turned off.

"Many foreigners have strange ideas what sauna bathing is all about," Koivisto said.

But the sauna-style meetings can also breed speculation about Byzantine backstage political plots. In the presidential race, charges have been leveled against the two front-runners for playing politics in the sauna.

The opposition Center Party accused Koivisto, a former Social Democratic premier, and Conservative Prime Minister Harri Holkeri of forming a secret coalition to stop Center Party leader Paavo Vayrynen from winning the election.

Surprise Maneuver

Koivisto pulled a surprise tactical maneuver after the inconclusive parliamentary elections in March by asking Holkeri, who also is a presidential candidate, to form a government, leaving Vayrynen out in the cold.

Vayrynen, 41, is the odd man out in Finnish politics, a nonconformist who says in public what most politicians save for the steam room.

The secret deal was--according to the Center Party--that Holkeri's electors would support Koivisto if the president did not win a majority immediately on Feb. 1. Holkeri's reward would come later.

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