Europe

Finns go to polls to elect new president, at unprecedented time for NATO newcomer

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A woman casts her ballot at a polling station during presidential election in Helsinki, Finland, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024.

Sergei Grits/AP

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Sergei Grits/AP

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station during presidential election in Helsinki, Finland, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024.

Sergei Grits/AP

HELSINKI — Voters in Finland were electing a new president Sunday at an unprecedented time for the Nordic nation that is now a NATO member with its eastern border with Russia closed — two things almost unthinkable a few years ago.

Polls across the country opened at 9 a.m. (0700 GMT) and will close at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT).

Unlike in most European countries, the president of Finland holds executive power in formulating foreign and security policy, particularly when dealing with countries outside the European Union like the United States, Russia and China.

Some 4.5 million citizens are eligible to vote for Finland’s new head of state from an array of nine candidates — six men and three women. They are picking a successor to hugely popular President Sauli Niinistö, whose second six-year term expires in March. He is not eligible for re-election.

No candidate is expected get more than 50% of the vote in Sunday’s first round of voting, pushing the race into a runoff in February.

Recent polls suggest that former Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, 55, and ex-Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, 65, are the leading contenders.

Stubb, who represents the conservative National Coalition Party and headed the Finnish government in 2014-2015, and veteran politician Haavisto, an ex-United Nations diplomat running for the post for the third time, are each estimated to garner 23%-27% of the votes.

Finland’s new head of state will start a six-year term in March in a markedly different geopolitical and security situation in Europe than did incumbent Niinistö after the 2018 election.

Abandoning decades of military non-alignment in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland became NATO’s 31st member in April, much to the annoyance of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, which shares a 1,340-kilometer (832-mile) border with the Nordic nation.

NATO membership, which has made Finland the Western military alliance’s front-line country toward Russia, and the war raging in Ukraine a mere 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away from Finland’s border have boosted the president’s status as a security policy leader.

Advance vote results will be confirmed soon after polls close and initial results from Sunday’s voting are expected by around midnight (2200 GMT). The first round results will be officially confirmed on Tuesday.

The likely second round of voting between the two candidates with the most votes is set for Feb. 11.