HELSINKI — Finns on Sunday will choose either of two experienced politicians to be their next head of state, whose main task will be to steer the Nordic country’s foreign and security policy now that it is a member of NATO, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ex-Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, 55, on the center right, and former foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, 65, from the green left, largely agree on Finland’s foreign policy and security priorities. These include maintaining a hard line toward Moscow and Russia’s current leadership, strengthening security ties with Washington, and the need to help Ukraine both militarily and at a civilian level.
In the last days of campaigning, however, tiny differences in style and approach between the candidates have emerged.
“After the exceptionally polite campaigning of the first round, there has been a bit more confrontation” between the two men vying for the post, said Teivo Teivainen, professor of world politics at the University of Helsinki.
Stubb and Haavisto differ in their stance on the hypothetical question of whether Finland, a NATO newcomer, would allow the transportation of the alliance’s nuclear weapons through its territory.
“Stubb has a more positive attitude in bringing in nuclear weapons into Finland’s territory,” Teivainen said. “This reflects his slightly more positive line towards NATO integration and the United States.”
Unlike in most European countries, the president of Finland holds executive power in formulating foreign and security policy together with the government, especially concerning countries outside the European Union such as the United States, Russia and China.
The head of state also commands the military, particularly important in Europe’s current security environment and the changed geopolitical situation of Finland, which joined NATO in April 2023 in the aftermath of Russia’s attack on Ukraine a year earlier.
A brief look at a map shows why foreign and security policy are so important in this northern European country of 5.6 million people: Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer (832-mile) border with Russia. In November, Helsinki closed all eight official border crossings with its eastern neighbor, alleging that Moscow was using migrants to destabilize Finland in an alleged act of “hybrid warfare.”
A politician with the conservative National Coalition Party, Stubb took the top spot in the first round of the election on Jan. 28 with 27.2% percent of the votes, ahead of the eight other candidates — five men and three women.
Stubb, who led the government in 2014-2015 and earlier held several other Cabinet posts, is the favorite to win the presidency and succeed highly popular President Sauli Niinistö, whose second six-year term expires in March. He is not eligible for reelection.
Haavisto, the runner-up in the first round, was Finland’s top diplomat in 2019-2023 and the main negotiator of its entry into NATO. A former conflict mediator with the United Nations and a devout environmentalist, Haavisto took 25.8% of the votes in the first round.
A runoff was required because none of the candidates got more than half of the votes on Jan. 28. Recent polls indicate Stubb is the front-runner: he is predicted to get 53% to 54% of the votes and Haavisto 46% to 47%.
Haavisto, a former leader of the Green League who is running as an independent, is seeking the post for a third consecutive time after the 2012 and 2018 elections.
The head of state is expected to remain above the fray of day-to-day politics and largely to stay out of domestic political disputes.
However, Finland was hit by massive labor union strikes earlier this month, and the two candidates have faced questions on the campaign trail.
Stubb distanced himself from his party’s approach of giving employers and employees more freedom to settle disputes locally and said he wouldn’t interfere with labor market issues as a president. For his part, Haavisto said he would try — at the very minimum — to bring the parties together for talks behind the scenes.
The swing voters will be the supporters of the far-right populist The Finns party and the rural-based Center Party. The candidates for those parties were eliminated in the first round, but some 615,000 people, or nearly 20% of voters, cast their vote for the speaker of Parliament, Jussi Halla-aho, the former leader of The Finns.
Those voters favoring traditional values will now decide the Finnish presidency, analysts say.
“The second round of the election will primarily be decided by the voters of The Finns and the Center Party,” Teivainen said. “There’s a lot of conservatism and patriotism among them, so Haavisto’s homosexuality and civil service background have significance.”
Conscription military service or civil service is mandatory for Finnish males.
Haavisto’s strong advocacy for green policies is seen alienating or splitting some voters, while Stubb’s center-right backers seem much more united in their support.