Conservative Wins Finland Presidential Vote

Published February 5, 2012 9:45PM (EST)

HELSINKI (AP) — A former finance minister won Finland's presidential election Sunday and will become the country's first conservative head of state in five decades.

Sauli Niinisto took 63 percent of the votes, compared to 37 percent for his rival, Greens candidate Pekka Haavisto, official results showed with 100 percent of ballots counted.

The 63-year-old Niinisto will be the first president from the conservative National Coalition Party since 1956, and the first in 30 years from a party other than the center-left Social Democrats. He will replace Tarja Halonen, Finland's only female head of state and one of its most popular leaders, who has served the maximum two six-year terms.

"The president in Finland has to understand that there are many different thoughts and opinions and that they must be taken into account so that he can be the president of the whole nation," Niinisto said in his victory speech.

Finland's president has a largely ceremonial role with fewer powers now than in previous decades, and is not directly involved in daily politics. However, the head of state is seen as an important shaper of public opinion, takes the lead on non-EU matters of foreign policy and plays a role as a "brand ambassador" of Finland overseas.

Haavisto said the runoff between two pro-European Union candidates sent a strong signal to the world that the Nordic country wants to participate in a constructive way in helping solve Europe's financial woes.

"There is no simple solution to the European crisis and the future of Europe ... and certainly Sauli Niinisto's strengths are in the financial sector," Haavisto said.

The fact that both candidates in the runoff supported continued membership in the debt-ridden eurozone was also a relief for pro-European forces in Finland, who feared they were losing ground after the euroskeptic True Finns party surged to 20 percent in last year's parliamentary election.

"Finland has returned to a society of common sense, where we fear nothing, but are courageous, internationally minded and tolerant. I'm very pleased about that," said Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, also of the National Coalition Party.

Niinisto, who was finance minister when Finland adopted the euro in 2002, beat seven other candidates in the first round two weeks ago but failed to get the majority required to avoid a runoff.

Haavisto, the first openly gay candidate to run for president in Finland, finished second in the first round but trailed Niinisto in polls leading up to the runoff.

Niinisto narrowly lost the previous presidential election six years ago to Halonen.

"He's the best — stable and steady — and will represent Finland in an exemplary manner," said Matti Oksanen, a retired engineer, before casting his ballot in a snowy suburb of Helsinki where the temperature plummeted to -15 F (-26 C). "We are not ready yet for the more radical candidate."

Haavisto, a soft-spoken former environment minister, drew his support from a core of young, liberal, urban voters.

"I voted for Haavisto, but it was a difficult choice. The men are very similar, but Haavisto is more open and more forward-looking," said Vesa Lehtinen, 39, who works for a computer company in Helsinki.

Many of Niinisto's party colleagues support Finnish membership in NATO, but he said before the vote he would not press that issue. Polls show most Finns are against joining the alliance.

Niinisto is married and has two adult sons from a previous marriage. His first wife died in a car accident. Niinisto and his sons were among the survivors of the 2004 tsunami while vacationing in Thailand.

Both Niinisto and Haavisto entered Parliament in 1987. They come from affluent backgrounds, share a gentlemanly manner and, in true Finnish fashion, were not provoked into confrontation during debates.

Haavisto's sexual orientation wasn't a major issue in debates, but analysts said it was an obstacle in the race.

"The older generation simply isn't ready for it," said Olavi Borg, a political analyst.


Jari Tanner contributed to this report.

By Salon Staff

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