(Bloomberg) -- Finland’s presidential race saw former Prime Minister Alexander Stubb and previous Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto barrel past other candidates to face each other in a runoff in two weeks.
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Stubb took home about 27% of the votes, followed by Haavisto with about 26%, the Justice Ministry said on Sunday. Almost 75% of the electorate cast a ballot, the biggest turnout in nearly two decades.
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At stake is who will succeed President Sauli Niinisto, 75, as he is no longer eligible to run after serving two consecutive six-year terms. The one seen as the most adept at steering foreign and security policy will likely appeal to the electorate.
The president’s role in leading Finland’s foreign policy grew in significance during Niinisto’s second term after Russia’s unexpected all-out invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, which fundamentally altered Europe’s security calculus. After a radical rethink, Finland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last year.
“For us, foreign and security policy is existential,” Stubb, 55, said. “In that sense we are quite unified in the big picture, whether it’s NATO membership or things linked to that.”
When Finland joined NATO, Russia vowed a response. That began late last year, when scores of asylum seekers began arriving on the 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) border separating the two countries. Finnish authorities soon termed the events a hybrid operation after determining Russian officials were assisting the migrants to put pressure on the Nordic country. Finland responded by closing checkpoints, and the frontier remains shut to date.
“We are very aligned on the key security policy questions — NATO membership, Finland’s defense cooperation agreement with the US and on being tough on the Russian border,” the 65-year-old Haavisto said. “It’s not a bad thing that Finns are so unanimous on the central foreign policy issues.”
The leadership contest has been the most riveting in decades as Stubb and Haavisto went into Sunday’s election night in a tight race with Speaker of parliament Jussi Halla-aho of the nationalist Finns Party. Halla-aho finished the race with 19% backing and Bank of Finland Governor Olli Rehn with about 15%.
Stubb and Haavisto are set to go into a runoff Feb. 11.
Stubb has held all the top ministerial posts in Finland, including the finance and foreign affairs portfolios. Most recently a professor at European University Institute in Florence, Italy, Stubb has a PhD in international relations.
He is an avid athlete, having completed numerous marathons and triathlons, including the celebrated Ironman World Championships. As a teenager he played ice hockey and golf, which took him to study at Furman University in South Carolina.
When he served as prime minister, he even faced criticism for allegedly prioritizing sport over political responsibilities. The Swedish-speaking Finn communicates fluently in a number of languages and has published 16 books.
Haavisto is running for president for a third time, having gone against Niinisto twice. The veteran diplomat steered Finland into NATO as foreign minister, navigating sensitive negotiations to make membership a reality. He’s also helped broker peace in Darfur as a special representative of the European Union.
Haavisto is one of the early members of Finland’s Green Party and the only out gay candidate in the race.
Haavisto lists literature, Beetle cars, and wooden boats as his hobbies, and has also gained popularity by spinning records from the 1960s and 1970s under the pseudonym DJ Pexi, including at campaign events in recent weeks.
At the end of the night, Stubb told his campaign team to work hard, be humble and play fair — while Haavisto put out a plea for donations to help win over voters whose candidates did not make it into the second round.
--With assistance from Philip Tabuas.
(Writes through with final results from first paragraph)
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