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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Finland elects Alexander Stubb president as it ushers in NATO era



Finnish Army conscripts with the 2nd Military Police Company during a training exercise in a suburb of Helsinki, Sept. 6, 2023. After decades of going it alone in security issues, Finns are finding that life in a large alliance is complex, expensive and deeply political. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

By Erika Solomon and Johanna Lemola


Finns elected center-right politician Alexander Stubb as their new president Sunday, in the first national election since the country joined NATO, filling a post that will be critical to shaping Finland’s role in the alliance at a time of increasingly fraught relations with Russia.


The election might typically have gained little notice beyond the borders of the northern European country of 5.6 million people. But Finland, the newest member of NATO, shares the longest border with Russia — some 830 miles — and its politics have taken on special interest to its European and American allies as the geopolitical order shifts.


U.S. power is being challenged by Moscow and Beijing, and Europe is grappling with its largest land war since World War II. At the same time, the American commitment to aiding Ukraine looks increasingly in doubt, and an unpredictable American presidential election looms.


Finland has a parliamentary system of government, but its presidency is not a ceremonial role. The president is responsible for foreign policy, and the winner will play a pivotal role in steering the country through a changing world.


“What kind of a NATO country Finland is going to become is an open question at the moment,” said Jenni Karimaki, a political analyst at the University of Helsinki. “The new president is going to have a lot of say on that matter.”


Finland’s decision to join NATO was a sharp break from its decades of nonalignment, and the risks and responsibilities of the country’s new place in the world had dominated the campaign over who should succeed the popular Sauli Niinisto, whose second six-year term expires next month.


Stubb, of the National Coalition Party, went into the runoff election Sunday against Pekka Haavisto of the center-left Green League.


Stubb won with 51.6% of the vote, while Haavisto had 48.4%.


“We’re in a new situation in international policy, where rules are challenged, institutions are challenged, we have war near us, and Russia behaves aggressively,” the president-elect said after the vote was called. “But we’re also facing a new era — because we’re militarily aligned, and we’re a NATO member.”


The two candidates expressed very similar views on the issues most on the minds of voters — they have both strongly supported joining NATO and take a tough line on Russia. The differences between them are largely stylistic.


During his campaign, Stubb, a former prime minister who went to college in South Carolina, emphasized his desire to bolster trans-Atlantic relations on the campaign trail and regularly played up his hard-line stance.


“I’m as hawkish as the best of them, there’s no question about that,” he told The New York Times in an interview before the vote.


He said countering Russia had become more difficult in an era of hybrid warfare.


A section of the Balticconnector, a gas pipeline between Finland and Estonia, was damaged by a Chinese ship as it traveled between two Russian ports. Although an investigation into the episode is still underway, many security experts suspect sabotage. There also has been a surge in cyberattacks, some of which Russia has claimed responsibility for.


One issue particularly concerning to voters has been a sudden sharp increase in asylum-seekers crossing into Finland over the Russian border, which many in Finland view as a signal from Russia in response to its NATO membership. Moscow had warned there would be “countermeasures” for Finland joining NATO.


“The line between war and peace has been blurred,” Stubb said.


Haavisto, who was foreign minister from 2019 to 2023, used his credentials as one of the main negotiators for Finland’s entry into NATO to show that his stance on Russia is equally tough. But the former United Nations peace negotiator shied away from more hawkish positions.


Stubb showed himself keen to push a more robust Finnish military role within NATO than Haavisto. Stubb raised the idea of permanently hosting a small number of NATO officers in the country.


He also said he would support letting the alliance transport its nuclear weapons on Finnish territory — but that possibility remains a hypothetical, as current Finnish law prohibits nuclear weapons on Finnish territory, and the president cannot legislate.


Stubb’s party, however, now holds nearly complete control on foreign policy matters for the country. In addition to the presidency, the National Coalition Party also holds the role of prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister in the government.


Voter turnout for the runoff election was around 71% of the electorate, and around the capital blue and white Finnish flags were hoisted on buildings to honor the day. The custom in Finland is to have coffee and cake after voting, and lots of families turned out to polling stations Sunday with their children, who could share in the treats with their parents afterward.


Beyond their border with Russia, however, there is another concern for Finnish voters across the Atlantic: What is in store for Finland’s NATO membership should former President Donald Trump, an outspoken critic of the alliance who has even suggested the United States might leave it, win the presidential election in November?


“The whole decision of joining NATO banked on the idea that the U.S., the Americans, are here to stay and that U.S. commitment is long lasting,” said Matti Pesu of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “If the U.S. decided to weaken its commitment, it would be a huge irony, and it would weaken the deterrence value of Finland’s NATO membership.”

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