Vote counting was underway in Finland on Sunday night time in apresidential race that comes because the nation, NATO’s latest member, faces the specter of an antagonistic Russia.
The election, which is anticipated to require a second spherical of voting, is for Finland’s first new head of state in 12 years. The nation’s wildly common president, Sauli Niinistö, has served two phrases and is ineligible to run once more.
Seen as a steadying power, Mr. Niinistö is taken into account the individual most responsible for getting Finland into the NATO alliance, leaving whoever assumes the presidency with large sneakers to fill.
From a area of 9 candidates, the latest pre-election polls confirmed two front-runners: Alexander Stubb and Pekka Haavisto. Both are acquainted faces with sturdy overseas coverage credentials.
Polling stations had been busy on Sunday within the capital, Helsinki, the place a gradual stream of voters braved near-freezing temperatures and icy sidewalks to solid their ballots within the Lauttasaari district. Volunteers greeted them cheerfully and welcomed them in from the chilly.
Polls closed at 8 p.m. native time, and outcomes had been anticipated to return in later Sunday. If no candidate receives greater than half of the vote, a runoff election shall be held on Feb. 11 between the highest two first-round finishers.
While most European presidents occupy largely ceremonial roles, Finland’s drives overseas coverage and serves because the commander in chief. That helped catapult Mr. Niinistö to international prominence after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 — and cemented his approval score, which exceeds 90 %.
“The most essential choice of Sauli Niinistö’s presidency was to affix NATO,” the retired political journalist Unto Hämäläinen wrote within the present challenge of Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat journal. “His time period shall be remembered for that after a long time.”
The incoming president is not going to solely draw comparisons with Mr. Niinistö however can even be anticipated to construct on his legacy, analysts mentioned. First and foremost shall be managing Finland’s integration into NATO amid issues about potential Russian aggression and escalating tensions within the Baltic Sea area.
“The expectations are fairly excessive for the successor,” mentioned Juhana Aunesluoma, a professor of political historical past on the University of Helsinki.
Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia, together with a combative historical past. The neighbors have fought quite a few wars via the centuries, and Finns have sturdy recollections of the 1939 Winter War and World War II, when their nation fought the Soviet Union and misplaced territory. With the battle in Ukraine persevering with and Finnish officers accusing Russia of efforts to destabilize their nation, analysts say that safety is the primary challenge on voters’ minds.
That is why, they are saying, voters are searching for a president with the broadest potential expertise in overseas coverage, which the candidate pool displays.
“Even the liberal candidates have adopted a line that stresses navy preparedness and border safety,” mentioned Johanna Vuorelma, a researcher on the University of Helsinki’s Center for European Studies.
Mr. Haavisto is making his third presidential run after dropping to Mr. Niinistö prior to now two elections. A founding father of the center-left Greens Party, Mr. 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 a number of authorities roles. Most lately, he was Finland’s overseas minister from 2019 to 2023.
Mr. Stubb can be a former overseas minister and a former prime minister. A outstanding member of the middle proper, he left Finnish politics in 2017 and swore to not return, however he has mentioned that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine modified his thoughts.
That has made the variations of their personalities all of the extra essential to voters, in response to analysts. Since the marketing campaign season acquired into full swing this previous summer time, every candidate has toured Finland to fulfill voters at faculties, gasoline stations, buying malls and markets. Mr. Stubb, an Ironman triathlete, has typically appeared at sporting occasions. Mr. Haavisto has adopted the stage identify “DJ Pexi” and spun information at pupil occasions to enchantment to youthful voters.
Debates have been dignified and well mannered, a distinction to parliamentary election campaigns, which are sometimes rowdy. Both Mr. Haavisto and Mr. Stubb have solid themselves as unifiers throughout the marketing campaign, almost certainly due to expectations that the election will go to a runoff.
Voter turnout in Finland, a rustic of 5.6 million folks, has tended to be round or above 70 % for presidential elections. More than 1.8 million Finns, or 44 % of the nation’s eligible voters, solid their ballots in early voting, according to preliminary data.
Cassandra Vinograd contributed reporting from London.