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NATO newcomer Finland's presidential election is headed for a runoff

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

Updated January 28, 2024 at 2:55 PM ET

HELSINKI — Ex-Prime Minister Alexander Stubb was projected to win the first round of Finland's presidential election on Sunday and face runner-up Pekka Haavisto in a runoff next month.

Finnish public broadcaster YLE projected that Stubb won the first round of the presidential election with 27.3% of the votes, while Haavisto, an ex-foreign minister, took second place with 25.8%. Parliamentary Speaker Jussi Halla-aho came in third place with 18.6%

The projected result will push the race into a runoff on Feb. 11 between Stubb and Haavisto as none of the candidates received more than half of the votes.

YLE's prediction, highly accurate in previous elections, is a mathematical model calculated on the basis of advance votes and a certain number of Sunday's votes under official data provided by the Legal Register Centre. Exit polls aren't generally used in Finland.

Stubb, 55, who represents the conservative National Coalition Party and headed the Finnish government in 2014-2015, and Haavisto, 65, who is making his third run for the office, were the main contenders in the election where about 4.5 million eligible voters picked a successor to hugely popular President Sauli Niinistö, whose second six-year term expires in March. He wasn't eligible for reelection.

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.

The president also acts as the supreme commander of the Finnish military, a particularly important duty in Europe's current security environment.

Polls across the country closed at 8 p.m. About 4.5 million citizens were eligible to vote for Finland's new head of state from an array of nine candidates — six men and three women.

"I expect strong leadership in the current global situation," said Eve Kinnunen, who voted in a polling station in the center of the capital, Helsinki.

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 nonalignment 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 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 600 miles away from Finland's border have boosted the president's status as a security policy leader.

In line with consensus-prone Finnish politics, months of campaigning have proceeded smoothly among the candidates. They all agree on major foreign policy issues like Finland's future policies toward Russia, enhancing security cooperation with the United States and the need to continue helping Ukraine both militarily and with humanitarian assistance.

Membership in the military alliance "also means that NATO should have a new Arctic dimension, because NATO is then stronger in the Arctic area when both Finland and Sweden are members," Haavisto told The Associated Press during his last campaign event at a music bar just outside Helsinki late Saturday.

As foreign minister, Haavisto, a Green League member who is running as an independent candidate, signed Finland's historic accession treaty to NATO last year and played a key role in the membership process.

Western neighbor Sweden is set to join NATO in the near future as the final holdout, Hungary, is expected to ratify Stockholm's bid by the end of February.

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The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]