HELSINKI (AP) — The conservative pro-Europe favorite was headed toward a comfortable victory in Finland's presidential election Sunday, but without the majority needed to avoid a runoff, partial results showed.
Sauli Niinisto, a former finance minister, was given 37 percent of the vote in a prediction by national broadcaster YLE. Official results with 80 percent of votes counted also showed him with a clear lead.
The results suggested he would face either Paavo Vayrynen, a former foreign minister, or Greens candidate Pekka Haavisto in a second round next month.
Haavisto, the first openly gay presidential candidate in Finland, got 18 percent in YLE's forecast, just ahead of Vayrynen with 17.8 percent.
Populist leader Timo Soini, the face of euroskepticism in Finland, was a distant fourth with 9.6 percent.
Full results were expected later Sunday. If no one gets 50 percent, a second round will be held next month between the top two candidates.
The vote comes as the Nordic country braces for cutbacks amid a European financial crisis that threatens the economy and the top credit rating of the eurozone member.
The president has a largely ceremonial role and is not involved in daily politics, but is considered an important shaper of public opinion in the small Nordic country.
Niinisto, 63, of the conservative National Coalition Party, was narrowly defeated in the previous election in 2006 by outgoing President Tarja Halonen. This time, he had topped surveys for months in the field of eight candidates.
"It's 99 percent sure that Niinisto will win the presidency, if not in the first round then in a runoff. A miracle would have to happen for him not to win," said Olavi Borg, a political analyst.
A smooth-talking political veteran, Niinisto is viewed by many Finns as the most statesman-like of the candidates.
Vayrynen, 65, is a two-time presidential candidate and government minister during five different decades.
Haavisto also has strong resume. The 53-year-old former environment minister has held several positions in EU and U.N. operations helping to solve crises in Sudan, Darfur and the Middle East.
"He's extremely cultured and civilized. We need a member of a new, educated generation who hasn't been corrupted by politics," said Laila Halme, a retired graphic artist, as she walked her dog through thick snow to vote in a Helsinki suburb.
Soini, 49, didn't have the same impact in the presidential election as he did in last year's parliamentary ballot, when his True Finns party won a stunning 19 percent of votes with demands that relatively well-off Finland stop supporting bailouts for debt-stricken eurozone members.
Finland's 12th president since independence from Russia in 1917 will replace Halonen, the country's hugely popular first female head of state who has served two six-year terms.