Finland’s Scene-Stealing First Dog Is Missed During Dull Election
Posted January 27, 2018 3:00 p.m. EST
HELSINKI — President Sauli Niinisto of Finland is widely seen as a discreet operator, quietly pushing for re-election Sunday.
“He has made no major mistakes,” said Teivo Teivainen, a political scientist at the University of Helsinki, describing the president’s first six years in office. “He seems very careful.”
Niinisto’s pet, however, is a bit of a showboating scene-stealer, who has had a memorable first term. Finland’s first dog, Lennu, a wrinkly-nosed Boston terrier with a lolling tongue, has become a bona fide celebrity in the country, and beyond.
Niinisto’s posts on Twitter, done sparingly and cautiously a few times a month, typically garner a few dozen retweets. But a portrait of a grinning, naughty Lennu, being lovingly scolded by his master at a formal occasion, was reshared on Twitter more than 50,000 times and liked almost 150,000 times after it was posted by a reporter.
Despite his dog’s popularity, the president has resisted taking Lennu with him on the stump.
“Lennu has not made a campaign appearance,” said Pete Pokkinen, Niinisto’s campaign manager.
Illness may be a factor in Lennu’s absence.
During the official Independence Day celebration last month, a major occasion in Finland, where the president gives gifts to various national dignitaries, Lennu’s vet was also noticeably present at the ceremony.
Lennu, Niinisto announced, had come down with “dog flu,” worrying his many fans. Although the president later said Lennu had recovered, he added that his 7-year-old dog would be taking “an election vacation.”
The Boston terrier’s distinctive short and stubby nose, rather like those of a pug or an English Bulldog, can be vulnerable to respiratory problems. While Lennu’s lolling tongue and wide smiles can seem adorable, it can mean a painful struggle for breath for the breed, borne of its own facial muscles being too large and wrinkly for its skull size.
Many have missed Lennu’s enlivening presence during a stolid, largely uneventful campaign.
Opinion polls suggest that Niinisto is likely to win comfortably. The final campaign debate Thursday included few tough questions for the incumbent, who handled his rivals with courtesy.
“In general, all the debates have been fairly lame and boring,” Teivainen said. “There have been very few moments where things have been heated.”
Among Lennu’s many fans are the employees at the Cafe Esplanad in central Helsinki, a mainstay for politicians and tourists seeking salmon soup or a cinnamon roll on a slushy day in the city. The cafe has designed a special cake in honor of Lennu.
“Making the smile is the worst part,” said Tarja Airaksinen, a baker at the cafe, describing the drizzling of molten chocolate and a lolling tongue of red marzipan, all crafted delicately above a center of raspberry mousse sprayed with coconut.
But on Friday there were none in the store. The cafe owners felt wary of displaying any political sentiments during the presidential voting, which lasts a few days in Finland.
Niinisto, like other presidents, has quietly stopped by her cafe many times, said the proprietor, Gunvor Backman, 87. But, she added, she trained her staff specially to leave her customers to their cake in peace, presidents and celebrities included. No fainting or fawning, she stressed.
“A customer is a customer and we are here to serve,” she said emphatically. “If our eyes meet, I might just give them a little nod.”
What about Lennu as a customer? Backman said that she did not allow dogs inside, but that her son was more lenient on such matters.
While Lennu is unusual for his popularity in the annals of first pets in Finland, he is not the first to make news.
Niinisto’s predecessor, Tarja Halonen, had three cats. Two were named Rontti and Miska. The third, Meggi, was a gift from Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president at the time, and was occasionally suspected of being bugged.