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Finland elects new president for first time since joining NATO

Finnish voters will go to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election at a time when NATO’s newest member faces threats from a hostile Russia.

The election is expected to hold a second round of voting to elect Finland’s first new head of state in 12 years. Nationally popular President Sauli Niinisto has served two terms and is ineligible to run again.

Mr Niinistö was seen as a stabilizing force and was considered most responsible Bringing Finland into the NATO alliance left a heavy burden on the person holding the chair.

From nine candidates, Latest polls Two front-runners are shown: Alexander Stubb and Pekka Haavisto. Both are familiar faces with strong foreign policy credentials.

Results from Sunday’s election are expected to be announced later on Sunday. If no candidate receives a majority of the votes, a runoff will be held on February 11 between the top two candidates in the first round.

While most European presidents serve primarily in ceremonial roles, the Finnish president drives foreign policy and serves as commander-in-chief. This helped Niinisto gain global popularity after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and solidified his approval rating of more than 90%.

“The most important decision of Sauli Niinistö’s presidency was to join NATO,” retired political journalist Onto Hamalainen wrote in the latest issue of Finland’s Helsinki Sanomat magazine. “Decades later, people His tenure will be remembered for this.”

Analysts say the incoming president will not only draw comparisons to Mr Niinisto but will also carry on his legacy. First and foremost is managing Finland’s integration into NATO amid concerns about potential Russian aggression and escalating tensions in the Baltic region.

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

Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia and has a bellicose history. The two neighbors have fought numerous wars over the centuries, and Finns have fond memories of the 1939 Winter War and World War II, when their country fought the Soviet Union and lost miserably. As the war in Ukraine drags on and Finnish officials accuse Russia of destabilizing their country, analysts say security is top of mind for voters.

That’s why voters, they say, are looking for a president with the broadest experience in foreign policy. The candidate pool reflects this.

“Even the liberal candidates have taken a line emphasizing military preparedness and border security,” said Johanna Worelma, a researcher at the Center for European Studies at the University of Helsinki.

Mr Haavisto is running for president for a third time after losing to Mr Niinisto in the past two elections. Mr Haavisto, a founder of the center-left Green Party, first ran for parliament in 1987 and has been a major figure in Finnish politics ever since. Served as a legislator, United Nations official and in various government positions. Most recently, he served as Finland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2019 to 2023.

Mr Stubb is also a former foreign minister and former prime minister. A prominent member of the center-right, he left Finnish politics in 2017 and vowed never to return, but said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed his mind.

The candidates agreed on most foreign policy issues, including NATO membership, Securing the nation’s borders with Russia and what to do with Moscow.

Analysts say that makes their personality differences even more important to voters. Since the campaign season got into full swing last summer, candidates have traveled to Finland to meet voters in schools, gas stations, shopping malls and markets. Stubb is a triathlete who often appears at sporting events. Haavisto adopted the stage name “DJ Pexi” and recorded at student events to appeal to young voters.

The debate was dignified and polite, in stark contrast to the often noisy parliamentary election campaign. Both Mr. Haavisto and Mr. Stubb cast themselves as unifiers during the campaign, likely in anticipation of a runoff.

In Finland, a country of 5.6 million people, turnout in presidential elections is often around 70% or above. More than 1.8 million Finns, or 44% of the country’s eligible voters, voted early, Based on preliminary data.

Polling stations in Helsinki were busy on Sunday morning as a steady stream of voters braved near-freezing temperatures and icy sidewalks to cast their votes in the capital’s Lautasari district. The volunteers greeted them brightly and out of the cold.

Cassandra Winograd Reporting from London.

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