Finnish Former Minister Leads Presidential Vote

Published February 5, 2012 6:27PM (EST)

HELSINKI (AP) — A conservative former finance minister took a commanding lead in Finland's presidential election Sunday, winning 65 percent of early ballots, according to official results.

Sauli Niinisto had a 30-point lead over his rival, Greens candidate Pekka Haavisto, who won 35 percent of the advance votes, the results showed. About one-third of the electorate, about 1.5 million voters, cast ballots in a week of advance voting before election day.

Surveys had shown Niinisto as a clear front-runner after beating Haavisto — the first openly gay candidate to run for president in Finland — and six others in the first round on Jan. 22, though he failed to get the required majority to avoid a runoff.

The 63-year-old 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 -15 F (-26 C). "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.

Election officials said cold weather apparently had discouraged voters in some areas.

"When it's as cold as this, people aren't as ready to come out," election official Leo Ekholm said, referring to voting districts in eastern parts of the country where the temperature dipped to below minus -31 F (-35 C).

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.

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.

By Salon Staff

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