Finland Elects A New President

Published February 5, 2012 4:36PM (EST)

HELSINKI (AP) — Voters braved record low temperatures on Sunday to choose the Finland's leader in a runoff between a veteran conservative and the first openly gay candidate from the small Greens party, seen by many as too radical for the Nordic country.

Ex-finance minister Sauli Niinisto continued to lead surveys by a wide margin over former environment minister Pekka Haavisto, but some analysts said it could be a close race.

"They say that it would be about 60-40 (percent), but I am inclined to think that, at least normally in these elections, it is more even," said Kimmo Gronlund, a social analyst at Abo Akademi University.

The 63-year-old hard-baked Niinisto, who was finance minister when Finland adopted the euro in 2002, is popular among older voters and for many represents continuity.

"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 minus 15 Fahrenheit (minus 26 Celsius). "We are not ready yet for the more radical candidate."

Haavisto, a soft-spoken trailblazer of Finland's environmental movement, became Europe's first government minister from a Green party when he was given the environment portfolio in 1995. He draws 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. "Let's hope Finland is prepared to have him as leader of the country."

The Finnish 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 takes the lead on non-EU matters of foreign policy, is seen as an important shaper of public opinion, and plays a role as a "brand ambassador" of Finland overseas.

The candidates have a lot in common. They entered politics in 1987, when they were voted into Parliament. They come from affluent backgrounds, share a gentlemanly manner and, in true Finnish fashion, have not been provoked into confrontation during debates.

Both also have international credentials and are staunchly pro-European, supporting bailouts for cash-strapped eurozone members and further EU integration.

But many voters will find it difficult to cast a ballot for the environmentalist who has lived with an Ecuadorean immigrant in a registered partnership for 10 years.

"Haavisto's sexual orientation, in my mind, will be one of the major reasons, if not the main one, why people won't vote for him," said Olavi Borg, a political analyst. "The older generation simply isn't ready for it."

Haavisto's sexual orientation has not been a major issue in lackluster election debates, but remains below the surface among the taciturn Finns who relish privacy and refrain from discussing family affairs in public.

Niinisto, who is married and has two adult children from a previous marriage, has avoided commenting directly on Haavisto's partnership.

"I have the impression that Finns are tolerant and feel that everyone is entitled to their privacy and that the private lives of others are none of their business," Haavisto, 53, told The Associated Press, but conceded that his sexual orientation could be "a hurdle" for some voters.

Niinisto won the first round of the election on Jan. 22 in a field of eight, with 37 percent of the votes against Haavisto's 19 percent, and has maintained a clear lead in surveys leading up to the second round.

A poll published by national broadcaster YLE on Thursday gave Niinisto 62 percent support against 38 percent for Haavisto. Taloustutkimus interviewed 1,492 people in Jan. 25 to Feb. 1 for the survey, which had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Sunday's winner will replace outgoing Tarja Halonen, one of Finland's most popular heads of state, who has served the maximum two six-year terms.

About a third of the electorate, some 1.5 million voters, cast ballots in a week of advance voting before election day.

By Salon Staff

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