Finns were on course on Sunday to re-elect the charismatic and cautious president Sauli Niinisto who is credited for maintaining a balanced relationship with their powerful neighbour Russia at a time of simmering tensions between Moscow and the West.
Polling stations opened at 0700 GMT and are to close at 1800 GMT on Sunday. Niinisto has already cast his vote along with more than 36 percent of Finland’s 3.5 million registered voters.
In order to be re-elected for another six-year term and avoid a second round on February 11, Niinisto needs at least 50 percent of votes to win the first round.
If he succeeds, it would be a first since Finland introduced a two-round presidential election by popular vote in 1994.
Credited with 51 to 63 percent of votes according to the latest opinion poll, Niinisto is far ahead of the seven other candidates. His main rival, Pekka Haavisto of the Green party, is seen garnering around 13-14 percent support.
Finland’s most popular president in more than three decades, the 69-year-old who campaigned as an independent has skillfully shifted the EU member state closer to NATO without antagonising Russia, with whom the Nordic country shares the longest border in the bloc.
Finns “want stability and don’t want change right now,” Juhana Aunesluoma, research director at the University of Helsinki Network for European Studies, told AFP.
– ‘Handling Putin’ –
As Finland’s head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces, the president shares responsibility with the government for defence and foreign policy, though not EU affairs.
During his first term, Niinisto meticulously cultivated ties with President Vladimir Putin, who has been at odds with the West, particularly since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
The two leaders played an ice hockey match in 2012 and attended an opera together last year as part of Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence after the fall of the Tsarist Russian empire.
“Niinisto’s strategies and tactics have been rather successful, especially handling Putin,” Aunesluoma said.
At the same time Finland, a Russian Grand Duchy from 1809 to 1917, has forged increasingly close ties with the United States and NATO, of which it is not a member — unlike the Baltic states to the south.
Russia has repeatedly warned Sweden and Finland against joining NATO, an issue regularly debated in the two Nordic countries, perceiving it as a provocation or even a justification for war.
“One of the central goals of Finland’s foreign and security policy is to avoid getting pulled into an armed conflict,” Niinisto told Finnish defence forces in a speech earlier this month.
Teivo Teivainen, professor of politics at the University of Helsinki, said Niinisto’s “ambiguity” on NATO membership “was a successful strategy” during the election campaign as he has not disgruntled voters on either side of the debate on whether to join the alliance.
Russian military activity in the region has increased in recent years, including several violations of Finnish airspace and warplanes allegedly flying with switched-off transponders — devices that allow radars to identify aircraft.
Finnish and Russian defence officials announced last year that they would set up a 24-hour hotline to avoid any “misunderstandings”.