Finns will elect a new president on Sunday in the first national election since the country joined NATO, choosing a leader who will be instrumental in shaping the country’s role in the alliance at a time of increasingly tense relations with Russia.
The elections could generally gain little attention beyond the borders of the sparsely populated northern European country of 5.6 million people. But Finland, NATO’s newest member, shares the longest border with Russia (about 830 miles) and its policy has taken on special interest to its European and American allies as the geopolitical order changes.
American power is being challenged by Moscow and Beijing, and Europe is grappling with its biggest ground war since World War II. At the same time, the American commitment to helping Ukraine appears increasingly doubtful and an unpredictable American presidential election looms.
Finland’s president is responsible for foreign policy, and whoever wins will have primary responsibility for guiding the country in a changing world.
“The future president will have an impact on the type of NATO country Finland will be in the future,” said Jenni Karimaki, a political analyst at the University of Helsinki. “NATO membership is one of the things that is generating interest in these elections and, of course, in the global political situation in general.”
Finland’s decision to join NATO marked a radical break with decades of non-alignment and the risks and responsibilities of the country’s new place in the world dominated the campaign over who should succeed the popular Sauli Niinisto, whose second six-year term expires in March.
The two candidates who made it to the second round on Sunday – Alexander Stubb of the centre-right National Coalition Party and Pekka Haavisto of the centre-left Green League – have strongly supported the decision to join NATO and make a tough call. Line view over Russia. The differences between them have been mainly stylistic.
Stubb, a former prime minister who won the most votes in the first round, has touted his security credentials.
“I’m as hawkish as the best of them, there’s no doubt about that,” he told the New York Times.
He said countering Russia had become more difficult in an era of hybrid warfare. There has been an increase in cyberattacks, some of which Russian hackers have claimed responsibility for.
Among the issues most worrying voters is a sudden increase in the number of asylum seekers crossing into Finland across the Russian border, which many in Finland see as a signal from Russia in response to its membership in the NATO. Moscow had warned that there would be “countermeasures” for Finland to join NATO.
“The line between war and peace has been blurred,” Stubb said. “The Russians are very good at hybrid warfare.” And he added: “They will do everything possible to intimidate or destabilize Finland and especially public opinion. But so far they have totally failed.”
Haavisto, who was foreign minister from 2019 to 2023, has used his credentials as one of the main negotiators for Finland’s entry into NATO to demonstrate that his stance towards Russia is equally tough. But he has also shown caution in the face of tougher positions. Your identity has been shaped by years. as a peace negotiator for the United Nations, Finland and the European Union.
The difference in the approach of the two candidates became clearly clear during one of the debates. When asked if they would respond to a congratulatory call from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia if they won the election, the two parted ways: Stubb said he wouldn’t. But Haavisto said he would do it.
There are only a few other positions that really distinguish the candidates, such as their stance on nuclear weapons. Stubb has said he would be willing to allow the alliance to transport its nuclear weapons into Finnish territory, while Haavisto said no.
However, the question remains hypothetical, since current Finnish law prohibits nuclear weapons on Finnish territory and the president cannot legislate.
Haavisto has traveled around the country holding listening sessions at gas stations, a common gathering place in smaller towns in rural Finland.
He has also held several campaign events where he DJ himself using his nickname DJ Pexi, playing everything from the Beatles to Belgian punk. One of the final events of his campaign was a concert at which several famous Finnish musicians performed.
“Voting for Pekka Haavisto is important to me, because I want to preserve the last piece of peace in an increasingly belligerent world,” said Eino Nurmisto, a social media influencer who attended the concert.
Mr. Stubb, an avid athlete, began the second round of his campaign with a walk through central Helsinki and has organized cross-country skiing campaign events. He also opened a series of cafes across the country, for voters to stop by and escape the freezing temperatures with coffee, candy and campaign paraphernalia.
“We live in times that will be very important for the future of Finland,” said Claes-Henrik Taucher, warming himself in a Helsinki café over a coffee.
Beyond Russia, there is another concern on the other side of the Atlantic: What awaits Finland as a NATO member if Donald J. Trump, an outspoken critic of the alliance who has even suggested that the United States abandon it, wins the election November presidential elections?
“The whole decision to join NATO was based on the idea that the United States, the Americans, are here to stay and that the American commitment is long-lasting,” said Matti Pesu of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “If the United States decided to weaken its commitment, it would be a huge irony and would weaken the deterrent value of Finland’s NATO membership.”