Conservative wins Finland election, runoff needed

January 22, 2012 - 5:25 PM
Finland Elections

Sauli Niinistö, the National Coalition Party candidate for the Finnish presidential elections, campaigns at Kontula, in eastern Helsinki during the last campaigning day ahead of Sunday's elections. (AP Photo/ LEHTIKUVA / Markku Ulander) FINLAND OUT. NO THIRD PARTY SALES

HELSINKI (AP) — The conservative favorite easily won the first round of Finland's presidential election Sunday, setting up a runoff against an environmentalist leader who is the first openly gay candidate to run for head of state in the Nordic country.

Sauli Niinisto, a former finance minister, won 37 percent of the vote, well ahead of the other candidates but short of the majority needed to avoid a second round, official preliminary results showed.

With all votes counted, Pekka Haavisto, of the Greens party, was second with 18.8 percent, securing his place in the Feb. 5 runoff.

The result means Finns will have two pro-European candidates to choose from in the second round, contrasting with the surge in euroskeptic sentiment in last year's parliamentary election.

"Pro-Europe policies and supporting the euro have received strong support from the people," Niinisto said.

The president has a largely ceremonial role and is not involved in daily politics, but is considered an important shaper of public opinion in the small Nordic country.

Former foreign minister Paavo Vayrynen was neck and neck with Haavisto as the results trickled in, but ended up third, with 17.5 percent.

Vayrynen, a centrist, and fourth-placed populist leader Timo Soini oppose Finland's membership in the debt-ridden eurozone.

Soini's True Finns party won 19 percent of last year's parliamentary vote with demands that relatively well-off Finland — among the few European nations to maintain top credit ratings — stop supporting bailouts for cash-strapped eurozone members including Greece and Portugal.

However, he wasn't able to set the agenda for the presidential election, winning only 9.4 percent.

Niinisto, 63, of the conservative National Coalition Party, was narrowly defeated in the previous election in 2006 by outgoing President Tarja Halonen. This time, he had topped surveys for months in the field of eight candidates.

A smooth-talking political veteran, Niinisto is viewed by many Finns as the most statesmanlike of the candidates.

But Haavisto also has strong resume. The 53-year-old former environment minister has held several positions in EU and U.N. operations helping to solve crises in Sudan, Darfur and the Middle East.

"He's extremely cultured and civilized. We need a member of a new, educated generation who hasn't been corrupted by politics," said Laila Halme, a retired graphic artist, as she walked her dog through thick snow to vote in a Helsinki suburb.

Haavisto was overjoyed at making the second round, saying "the enthusiasm has been overwhelming and that will give us a good boost."

Political analyst Olavi Borg says Haavisto has little chance to beat Niinisto in a runoff. Large segments of Finnish voters will find it difficult to back a gay candidate, Borg said. Haavisto has been living in a registered partnership with another man for 10 years.

"Niinisto's popularity will be even clearer in the second round. Middle-aged and older people especially will not vote for Haavisto," Borg said.

An opinion poll published by YLE on Thursday showed that in a runoff, 64 percent of voters would support Niinisto against 22 percent for Haavisto. Fourteen percent were undecided.

Pollster Taloustutkimus interviewed 1,457 people between Jan. 10 and 18 for the survey. It had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Finland's 12th president since independence from Russia in 1917 will replace Halonen, the country's hugely popular first female head of state who has served two six-year terms.

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Jari Tanner contributed to this report.