HELSINKI: Finland goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president, whose role in leading foreign policy has been amplified by heightened tensions with neighbouring Russia following the war in Ukraine.
The changing geopolitical landscape in Europe will be the main concern for the new head of state, who also acts as supreme commander of Finland’s armed forces.
Two top politicians lead the pack of nine candidates; former conservative prime minister Alexander Stubb, and former foreign minister Pekka Haavisto of the Green Party, who is running as an independent.
Opinion polls suggest the two will likely face off in the second round of voting on Feb 11.
“The next president of the republic will be first and foremost a president of the West, a Nato president – and one of our most important relationships is our partnership with the United States,” Stubb said in a recent television interview.
Relations between Moscow and Helsinki deteriorated following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, prompting Finland to drop decades of military non-alignment and join Nato in April 2023.
Russia, with whom Finland shares a 1,340km border, swiftly warned of “counter-measures”.
Several months later, in August 2023, Finland observed an influx of migrants entering through its eastern border without visas.
Helsinki claimed Moscow was pushing the migrants in a hybrid attack to destabilise it. Finland closed its eastern border in November.
In the post-Cold War period, Helsinki maintained a good relationship with Moscow.
Incumbent President Sauli Niinisto once prided himself on his close ties with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin before becoming one of his most trenchant critics.
All the presidential candidates champion both Finland’s independence and its new role as a Nato member, said Hanna Wass, vice-dean at the faculty of social science at the University of Helsinki.
“They all seem to have a strong idea emphasising self-sufficiency, in that in the future, Finland should be in charge of its defence independently and also be an active contributor in building a shared European defence and Nordic cooperation,” Wass told AFP.
Tuomas Forsberg, professor of foreign policy at the University of Tampere, said the candidates all had similar foreign policy stances.
“This will be more about electing an individual, where you look at the person’s credibility and reliability and perceived qualities as a leader of foreign policy, and certain values and what else the person represents”, he told AFP.
An opinion poll published on Monday by the daily Helsingin Sanomat put Stubb in the lead with 22%, with Haavisto second with 20%.
“They both have broad experience in both domestic and foreign politics, which voters seem to value the most,” Wass said.
“They have been known figures for a long period of time for several generations.”
While sharing similar political views, Haavisto and Stubb represent different backgrounds, Forsberg noted.
“Their background and values…are seen as quite different because Alex is more a representative of the right and Haavisto of the left – even if Haavisto has tried to underline that there is nothing red about him, that he has taken the middle road as a Green.”
In a second round between the two, the election debates could be decisive, said Forsberg.
Just behind the frontrunners are far-right Finns Party candidate Jussi Halla-aho with 18%, and the former European commissioner Olli Rehn, backed by the Centre Party, with 12%.
Halla-aho and Rehn could still make it to the second round, said Forsberg.
Halla-aho, however, was not likely to win a second round if he made it that far because he is seen as too divisive, he added.
In a climate marked by general skepticism about what can be achieved through parliamentary politics, Finns tend to have more faith in the presidential institution, said Wass.
“The president is seen as a strong actor who people trust.”
Voter turnout for Finland’s presidential elections is typically around 70%.