Public broadcaster Yle forecast that Alexander Stubb and Pekka Haavisto will meet in the second round on February 11.
Centre-right candidate Alexander Stubb of Finland’s National Coalition Party appeared set to win the first round of the country’s presidential election on Sunday and will likely face liberal Green Party member Pekka Haavisto in a run-off.
With 96 percent of votes counted, Stubb led with 27.1 percent support, Ministry of Justice data showed, followed by Haavisto at 25.7 percent and nationalist Jussi Halla-aho third with 19.0 percent support.
Public broadcaster Yle forecast that Stubb and Haavisto will meet in the second round, scheduled for February 11.
Finland is electing a new president to lead the country in its new role within NATO after it broke with decades of non-alignment to join the Western defence alliance in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I think that Finns are searching for a new era president,” Stubb, a former prime minister, told public broadcaster Yle.
Haavisto, who served as foreign minister until last year, said he expected to go through to the second round.
“This is a splendid result from the first round and a very big gap to those behind us, so I believe we will move to the second round with Alexander Stubb,” he told Yle.
War in Ukraine
The role of Finland’s president entails taking the lead on foreign and security policy in close cooperation with the government, representing the country at NATO meetings, and also acting as commander-in-chief of the Finnish Defence Forces.
All three top candidates are supporters of Ukraine and have called for tough measures against Russia.
During their electoral campaigns, both Stubb and Haavisto steered towards the political middle, while Halla-aho maintained his right-wing conservative profile.
For many Finns, nationalist Halla-aho is a divisive figure who attracts both loyal supporters and staunch opponents.
In Helsinki, one advance voter, 26-year-old Leena Boksha, told the Reuters news agency it was particularly important to vote in the election because of the war in Ukraine and the difficult situation created by it.
Boksha said Stubb, seen by Finns as a cosmopolitan pro-European, was the right person to head the country’s foreign policy at this time.
“I voted Alexander Stubb because I think he’s very good at dealing with other countries and he has a good relationship with people outside Finland,” said Boksha, who was out with her baby to accompany a friend to vote on Sunday.
Jere Markkinen, a 22-year-old student in mechanical engineering, took a different view.
“I don’t think he [Stubb] would be a very good president because he doesn’t seem like he wants to represent the people, he wants to represent himself,” Markkinen told Reuters, adding he had voted for Haavisto in advance.
“He is experienced in foreign politics and is known for generally acting smart, unlike some other candidates.”
Finland’s admission to NATO last year also drew threats of “countermeasures” from its much larger neighbour Russia.
In December, Finland closed its entire border with Russia to passenger traffic in response to a surge in migrants trying to cross. Moscow denied Finnish charges it was sending the migrants there.
The new Finnish president will replace 75-year-old incumbent Sauli Niinisto, who is required to step down after two six-year terms in office.
He earned the nickname “the Putin Whisperer” during his tenure for his role in maintaining close ties with Russia, which had long been a key role for Finnish presidents.