Finland wonders who can follow in Kekkonen's footsteps

What happens to what some call the only real monarchy in the Nordic area when Finland's President Urho Kekkonen finally leaves the political scene? That is a question high-ranking Finns shrug off as though the situation will never arise. The man in the street has his favorites if pushed for an answer, but mostly the topic is left untouched in public.

Mr. Kekkonen has presided over Finland since 1956, carefully commandeering the nation's foreign policy to retain a delicate balance between East and West.

Foreign policy has been his major concern, and that has meant keeping his overbearing eastern neighbor, the Soviet Union, friendly while maintaining Finland's status as an independent Western democracy. It is quite a tightrope act for the tiny nation of 4.7 million -- especially at times of growing international tension.

Independence ranks as highly with Finns as saunas and they recall all too clearly that the Russians expropriated a cherished province of Finland after World War II. Mr. Kekkonen and his policies have staved off any further threat of Soviet encroachment and thus have won him his people's unquestionable approval.

Half of the adults in Finland today have never known any other president, which only strengthens the already numerous powers granted the head of state by the Constitution and his own forceful personality.

Perhaps the largest obstacle to grooming a successor to the tall, aging Mr. Kekkonen is the man himself. Those close enough to him to broach the subject reportedly have been curtly silenced.

Any speculation is immediately taken by the Soviets and Kekkonites as an attempt to change Finland's neutral stance and cordial relations with all countries, especially the Soviet Union.

But unless someone steps from the shadows and dazzles Finns soon, it is nearly a foregone conclusion that the presidency after Mr. Kekkonen will become much less powerful and more like that of West Germany.

The current Prime Minister, Social Democrat Mauno Koivisto, is considered the most likely successor. On leave of absence from directing the Central Bank, he is probably the only one who can garner support across all party lines.

In a television speech, President Kekkonen once supposedly named Mr. Koivisto as his choice, but the line was deleted and no one will comment now.

There are other contenders for the presidency, but until Mr. Kekkonen declares whether he intends to run for office again in 1984, politicians and citizens alike practice self-censorship and remain mum on the topic.

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