Voters in Finland will vote Sunday in a presidential election that comes as NATO’s newest member faces the threat of an antagonistic Russia.
The election, which is expected to require a second round of voting, is for Finland’s first new head of state in 12 years. The country’s wildly popular president, Sauli Niinistö, has served two terms and is ineligible to run again.
Viewed as a stabilizing force, Niinistö is considered the person most responsible for getting Finland into the NATO alliance, leaving whoever takes over 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 on Sunday. If no candidate receives more than half of the votes, a second round will be held on February 11 between the top two finishers from the first round.
While most European presidents perform primarily ceremonial roles, Finland’s president drives foreign policy and acts as 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 is over 90 percent.
“The most important decision of Sauli Niinistö’s presidency was to join NATO,” retired political journalist Unto Hämäläinen wrote in the latest issue of the Finnish magazine Helsingin Sanomat. “His tenure will be remembered for that after decades.”
Analysts say the incoming president will not only draw comparisons with Niinistö, but will also be expected to build on his legacy. First and foremost will be managing Finland’s integration into NATO amid concerns about possible Russian aggression and escalating tensions in the Baltic Sea region.
“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, as well as a combative history. Neighbors have fought numerous wars over 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. As the war in Ukraine continues and Finnish officials accuse Russia of trying to destabilize their country, analysts say security is the top issue on voters’ minds.
That’s why, they say, voters look for a president with as much foreign policy experience as possible. 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.
Haavisto is making his third presidential bid after losing to Niinistö in the last two elections. Founder of the center-left Green Party, Haavisto first ran for Parliament in 1987 and has been a staple of Finnish politics ever since, serving as a legislator, UN official and in various government positions. Most recently, he was Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland from 2019 to 2023.
Stubb is also a former foreign secretary and former prime minister. A prominent member of the centre-right, he left Finnish politics in 2017 and vowed not to return, but has said the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed his mind.
The candidates agree on most foreign policy issues, including membership in NATO, the security of the country’s border with Russia and how to handle Moscow.
That has made the differences in their personalities even more important to voters, analysts say. Since the campaign season went into full swing last summer, candidates have traveled around Finland to meet voters in schools, gas stations, shopping malls and markets. Mr Stubb, an Ironman triathlete, has often appeared at sporting events. Haavisto adopted the stage name “DJ Pexi” and played records at student events to appeal to younger voters.
The debates have been dignified and polite, in contrast to parliamentary election campaigns, which are often noisy. Both Haavisto and Stubb have presented themselves as unifiers during the campaign, most likely due to expectations that the election will go to a second round.
Voter turnout in Finland, a country of 5.6 million people, has tended to hover around or above 70 percent in presidential elections. More than 1.8 million Finns, or 44 percent of the country’s eligible voters, voted in early voting. according to preliminary data.
Polling stations were busy Sunday morning in Helsinki, where a steady stream of voters braved near-freezing temperatures and icy sidewalks to cast their ballots in the capital’s Lauttasaari district. The volunteers greeted them happily and welcomed them out of the cold.
Cassandra Vinograd contributed reporting from London.