Finnish voters will cast their ballots on Sunday in a presidential election that will take place as the new NATO member faces the threat of an antagonistic Russia.
The election, which is expected to require a second round of voting, will be for Finland’s first new head of state in 12 years. The country’s widely popular president, Sauli Niinistö, has served two terms and is not eligible to run again.
Considered a stabilizing force, Mr. Niinistö is seen as the person the most responsible for bringing Finland into the NATO alliance, leaving whoever assumes the presidency with big shoes to fill.
From a field of nine candidates, the latest polls show two favorites: Alexander Stubb and Pekka Haavisto. Both are familiar faces with strong foreign policy credentials.
Results from Sunday’s election are expected later Sunday. If no candidate obtains more than half of the votes, a second round will take place on February 11 between the first two of the first round.
While most European presidents occupy largely ceremonial roles, Finland leads foreign policy and serves as commander-in-chief. This helped propel Mr. Niinistö to the forefront of the world stage after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – and consolidate his popularity rating, which exceeds 90%.
“The most important decision of Sauli Niinistö’s presidency was joining NATO,” retired political journalist Unto Hämäläinen wrote in the current issue of the Finnish magazine Helsingin Sanomat. “His tenure will be remembered decades later. »
The new president will not only draw comparisons with Mr Niinistö, but will also have to build on his legacy, analysts say. Above all, it will be a question of managing Finland’s integration into NATO, against a backdrop of concerns about possible Russian aggression and an escalation of tensions in the Baltic Sea region.
“Expectations are quite high for the successor,” said Juhana Aunesluoma, professor of political history at the University of Helsinki.
Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia, as well as a combative history. The neighbors have fought many wars over the centuries, and Finns have strong memories of the Winter War of 1939 and World War II, when their country fought the Soviet Union and lost territory. As the war in Ukraine continues and Finnish officials accuse Russia of wanting to destabilize their country, analysts say security is the main issue on voters’ minds.
That’s why, they say, voters are looking for a president with the broadest possible foreign policy experience. The candidate pool reflects this.
“Even liberal candidates have taken a line that emphasizes military preparedness and border security,” said Johanna Vuorelma, a researcher at the Center for European Studies at the University of Helsinki.
Mr. Haavisto is participating in his third presidential campaign after losing to Mr. Niinistö in the last two elections. Founder of the center-left Green Party, Mr Haavisto first ran for parliament in 1987 and has been a fixture in Finnish politics ever since, as a lawmaker, UN official and in several capacities governmental. Most recently, he served as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland from 2019 to 2023.
Mr Stubb is also a former Foreign Secretary and a former Prime Minister. A prominent member of the center right, he left Finnish politics in 2017 and vowed not to return, but he said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had changed his mind.
The candidates agree on most foreign policy issues, including NATO membership, secure the country’s border with Russia and how to manage Moscow.
That made personality differences all the more important to voters, analysts say. Since the election season got into full swing last summer, candidates have traveled across Finland meeting voters in schools, gas stations, shopping centers and markets. Mr. Stubb, an Ironman triathlete, often appeared at sporting events. Mr. Haavisto adopted the stage name “DJ Pexi” and broke records at student events to attract young voters.
The debates were dignified and polite, in contrast to parliamentary election campaigns, which are often noisy. Both Mr. Haavisto and Mr. Stubb presented themselves as unifiers during the campaign, likely due to the expectation of a runoff election.
In Finland, a country of 5.6 million people, voter turnout is around or above 70 percent for presidential elections. More than 1.8 million Finns, or 44 percent of the country’s eligible voters, have already cast their ballots in early voting, according to preliminary data.