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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Finland’s presidential election, first since joining NATO, heads to runoff

The president of Finland, Sauli Niinisto, during a meeting with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, on March 4, 2022. Alexander Stubb and Pekka Haavisto were the top two vote-getters in Sunday’s election to replace the popular Niinisto, who is near the end of his second and final term. A runoff is scheduled for Feb. 11. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)

By Johanna Lemola

Finland’s presidential election is headed for a runoff after no candidate secured a majority in Sunday’s closely watched vote, which came as NATO’s newest member faces the threat of an antagonistic Russia.

Alexander Stubb and Pekka Haavisto — both familiar faces with strong foreign policy credentials — were the top two finishers Sunday, when voters braved near-freezing temperatures and icy sidewalks to cast their ballots. With 99.9% of the votes counted, Stubb had garnered 27.2% and Haavisto 25.8%, setting the two men up to face off in a second round Feb. 11.

The victor will become Finland’s first new head of state in 12 years: The wildly popular president, Sauli Niinistö, has served two terms and is ineligible to run again.

Seen as a steadying force, Niinistö is considered the person most responsible for getting Finland into the NATO alliance, leaving whoever assumes the presidency with big shoes to fill.

While most European presidents occupy largely ceremonial roles, Finland’s drives foreign policy and serves as the commander in chief. That helped catapult Niinistö to global prominence after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and cemented his approval rating, which exceeds 90%.

“The most important decision of Sauli Niinistö’s presidency was to join NATO,” retired political journalist Unto Hämäläinen wrote in the current issue of the Finnish magazine Helsingin Sanomat. “His term will be remembered for that after decades.”

The incoming president will not only draw comparisons with Niinistö but will also be expected to build on his legacy, analysts said. First and foremost will be managing Finland’s integration into NATO amid concerns about potential Russian aggression and escalating tensions in the Baltic Sea region.

“The expectations are quite high for the successor,” said Juhana Aunesluoma, a professor of political history at the University of Helsinki.

Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia, along with a combative history. The neighbors have fought numerous wars through the centuries, and Finns have strong memories of the 1939 Winter War and World War II, when their country fought the Soviet Union and lost territory. With the war in Ukraine continuing and Finnish officials accusing Russia of efforts to destabilize their country, analysts say that security is the main issue on voters’ minds.

That is why, they say, voters are looking for a president with the broadest possible experience in foreign policy, which the candidate pool reflected.

Haavisto is making his third presidential run after losing to Niinistö in the past two elections. A founder of the center-left Greens Party, Haavisto first ran for Parliament in 1987 and has been a staple of Finnish politics since, serving as a lawmaker, a U.N. official and in several government roles. Most recently, he was Finland’s foreign minister from 2019-23.

Stubb, a prominent member of the center right, is also a former foreign minister and a former prime minister. He left Finnish politics in 2017 and swore he would not return but has said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed his mind.

The two candidates agree on most foreign policy matters, including NATO membership, securing the country’s border with Russia and how to handle Moscow.

That has made the differences in their personalities all the more important to voters, according to analysts. After the campaign season got into full swing last summer, the candidates toured Finland to meet voters at schools, gas stations, shopping malls and markets. Stubb, an Ironman triathlete, often appeared at sporting events. Haavisto adopted the stage name DJ Pexi and spun records at student events to appeal to younger voters.

Finland faces a number of domestic challenges — a dismal economy, an aging population, labor market tensions and a ballooning national debt — that are the purview of the prime minister. But that doesn’t mean the president won’t be asked to lead or weigh in on domestic issues, analysts say.

“Citizens want leadership in values,” Johanna Vuorelma, a researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Center for European Studies, said, adding, “It’s a constant dilemma in Finland where the president’s executive power ends.”

Both Haavisto and Stubb cast themselves as unifiers during the campaign, most likely because of expectations that the election would go to a runoff.

As the first-round results rolled in, both men leaned into the idea of values.

Of his competitor, Stubb acknowledged that “our views are similar.” But Finns were looking “for a president for a new era,” he told the state broadcaster Yle, and would vote based on candidates’ experience along with “what kind of values they want their president to represent.”

“The contest really starts now,” he said. “In the next 13 days, we’ll work like crazy, we’ll work humbly, and we’ll respect and honor our rival.”

Haavisto suggested that the candidates’ positions might diverge, telling Yle that “differences between the candidates will come out” as he declared “full speed ahead toward the second round.”

The voters “will not be looking at party politics” but rather at “who can lead Finland with a steady and secure hand,” he said.

Voter turnout in Finland, a country of 5.6 million people, has tended to be around or above 70% for presidential elections — and Sunday’s poll did not disappoint. Nearly 75% of Finns cast ballots in the first round, according to Yle.

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