Vanhanen studied political science at the University of Helsinki, graduating as a Master of Social Sciences in 1989. He was chairman of the Centre Party Youth League from 1980 to 1983. He also served as a member of the Espoo City Council from 1981 to 1984. Vanhanen used to work as a journalist. He was an editor (1985–1988) and editor-in-chief (1988–1991) at the local newspaper Kehäsanomat. In a column in Suomenmaa (the Centre Party's organ), he strongly condemned the Baltic Star pro-Estonian independence demonstration held in Helsinki in July 1985, calling the demonstration "provocative".
Vanhanen was elected to the Finnish Parliament (Eduskunta) in 1991. As a member of Parliament he was interested in ecological issues. For instance, Vanhanen spoke against the building of a fifth nuclear power plant in 1992, at the same time as serving on the board of electricity corporation Fortum. He served on the Parliamentary Environment Committee 1991–1995, and was chair of the Parliamentary Grand Committee 2000–2001. He was vice-chair of the Centre Party Parliamentary group 1994–2001, and Deputy Chairman of the Centre Party 2000–2003.
Another important topic for Vanhanen was Finland's foreign and security policy. As a specialist on the European Union he was a member of the European Union Constitutional Convention. There he criticised the president of the convention, former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, as authoritarian. Vanhanen has said that he is unenthusiastic about European co-operation, and that he is an "EU pragmatist", so he may be considered a eurosceptic, especially when compared to his EU-enthusiast predecessor Paavo Lipponen.
Vanhanen's first cabinet
Vanhanen resigned from the Constitutional Convention in 2003 when he became Minister of Defense in the cabinet of Prime Minister Anneli Jäätteenmäki. After Jäätteenmäki's resignation, Vanhanen was elected Prime Minister and his first cabinet was formed.
As a politician, Vanhanen is considered to be part of the liberal wing of the old agrarian Central Party, along with the two other Party ministers from Uusimaa region. His government cut the top state income tax rate from 35.5% to 33.5% in 2005 and 32.5% in 2006 (resulting in approximately 55% total tax rate after local government and social security taxes). The corporate tax rate was also lowered to 26% and capital gains to 28% (both formerly 29%), though at the same time dividends were partially made taxable. Vanhanen has said he is willing to continue tax cuts.
As the Centre Party candidate, Vanhanen challenged President Tarja Halonen in the 2006 Finnish presidential election. He received 18.6% of the vote, coming third to the National Coalition Party's Sauli Niinistö (24.1%) and Social Democrat and incumbent Tarja Halonen (46.3%), and thus did not qualify for the runoff. Vanhanen expressed his support for Niinistö in the runoff election against his coalition partner's candidate Halonen.
The presidential election, and co-operation between Centre Party and National Coalition Party, proved to be a major strain on the government coalition between the Centre Party and Social Democrats. The flashpoint came in March, when the Centre Party demanded national agricultural subsidies to cover farmers' losses when the Finnish exception in the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy was about to expire. At the end of the crisis Vanhanen told his parliamentary group that taxpayers would cover ninety percent or about 100 million euros in losses.
Vanhanen's second cabinet
Vanhanen's second cabinet.
After the March 2007 election the Centre Party narrowly remained the largest party after losing four seats. However their coalition partner, the SDP, lost eight seats and the centre-right National Coalition Party gained ten. Vanhanen's second cabinet was formed on a centre-right basis, with minor partners the Green League and the Swedish People's Party.
A scandal involving Vanhanen's second cabinet began rolling in May 2008, after the leader of the Centre Party's parliamentary group Timo Kalli said publicly that he would not reveal information about his campaign finances, because such disclosure was not required. After a media backlash, Kalli gave up his secrecy and listed a group of businessmen known as "Kehittyvien maakuntien Suomi" (KMS; in English, "The Finland of Developing Regions"), who had financed the Centre Party. Centre Party links with KMS were suspected, as one address of the organisation belonged to a party official. It was later revealed that the organisation had been formed in the Centre Party's general secretary's office.
After the Russian response to the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia, Vanhanen said that Finland would rethink its security.
Vanhanen's cabinet proposed raising the retirement age from 63 to 65 years. His proposal was fiercely opposed by the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (Finnish acronym SAK), which is affiliated with the SDP.
In December 2009, Vanhanen announced that he would step down as chair of the Centre Party at its June 2010 convention. Mari Kiviniemi was chosen to the position and she also inherited the position as Prime Minister. In September 2010 Vanhanen started as the head of the Family Business Network Finland and left the parliament.
In 2010, the Finnish police investigated whether Vanhanen had been wrong not to disqualify himself in certain cabinet decisions on financial contributions to an organisation affiliated with the Centre Party, which had previously financed Vanhanen's presidential campaign. Because the charges concerned Vanhanen's actions while in office, the decision whether he should be prosecuted fell to the Constitutional Law Committee of the Finnish Parliament. The Committee decided not to prosecute Vanhanen.
Return to politics
In November 2014, Vanhanen announced that he would leave the Family Business Network. He was elected to the parliament in the 2015 elections with 11,304 personal votes. In June 2015, Vanhanen was chosen as the chairman of the Centre Party parliamentary group.
In March 2016, Vanhanen announced that he is seeking Centre Party's candidacy in 2018 presidential election. As no challengers appeared within the party, Vanhanen was the sole candidate in June's party conference and was confirmed as the Centre Party's candidate in the presidential election. Vanhanen said that his candidacy is motivated by the support he felt he had around the country during his last campaign and the will to improve the security situation in the areas surrounding Finland. Following the nomination, Vanhanen left his duties as the chairman of the parliamentary group in order to focus on global affairs. On 23 June 2016, Vanhanen was chosen as the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Parliament. In the first round of the presidential election, Vanhanen placed fifth with 4.1 percent of the votes, while the incumbent president Sauli Niinistö went on to secure his second term with a majority of votes.