In Finland’s upcoming presidential election on Sunday, two experienced politicians are vying for the position amidst escalating tensions with Russia and shifting geopolitical dynamics in Europe.
Former conservative prime minister Alexander Stubb and ex-foreign minister Pekka Haavisto, who is running as an independent Green Party MP, advanced to the run-off after placing first and second in the initial round of voting in late January.
According to a poll published by daily Helsingin Sanomat on Monday, Stubb leads with 54 percent while Haavisto follows closely behind with 46 percent.
The primary concern for Finland’s new head of state, given its recent NATO membership, will be navigating the country’s role in a changing Europe. This includes leading foreign policy efforts alongside the government and serving as the supreme commander of the armed forces.
“Compared to previous elections, defense policy has been pretty central for understandable reasons,” noted Matti Pesu, a leading researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
During the post-Cold War era, Helsinki maintained strong ties with Moscow. However, relations strained significantly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This event prompted Finland to abandon its decades-long policy of military non-alignment and join NATO in April 2023.
In August 2023, Finland experienced a surge in migrants entering through its eastern border without visas, following swiftly after Russia’s warning of “countermeasures” due to their shared 1,340-kilometre (830-mile) border.
Helsinki accused Moscow of orchestrating the influx to destabilize Finland and responded by closing the border in November. Theodora Helimaki, a doctoral researcher in political science at the University of Helsinki, emphasized the significance of Finland’s recent NATO membership, stating that the task of shaping the role of NATO in Finland will largely fall on the shoulders of the new president.
“Of the nine candidates in the first round, Haavisto and Stubb were perhaps the most experienced in terms of foreign policy,” she said.
Both Haavisto and Stubb, former foreign ministers, share similar views on foreign policy and support Finland’s NATO membership.
“Russia has blatantly violated all international law, attacking another country. The financial taps must be opened, and one way to do that is to use the $300 billion of Russian assets abroad,” Stubb remarked during a debate on Tuesday, responding to a question about the option of seizing frozen Russian assets.
At 55, Stubb, a Europhile, is reentering politics after three years as director of the Florence School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Italy, following his unsuccessful bid for the EU Commission presidency in 2018.
“Sanctions against Russia should be tightened further; the European Union should continue to drive down the Russian war economy. And of course, when there is peace one day, Russia should pay war reparations for everything that has been destroyed,” Haavisto stated, suggesting that Russia’s oil and gas revenues could contribute to the reparations.
Haavisto, one of the architects behind Finland’s NATO membership, boasts an extensive political career, having served as a minister in five different governments and now making his third bid for the presidency.
According to Helimaki, there are “a few smaller differences” between the two candidates, such as their stances on whether nuclear weapons can be transported and stored in Finland.
Haavisto firmly believes they should not be permitted on Finnish territory, even though, as a NATO member, Finland may need to engage in working groups and exercises related to the alliance’s nuclear policy.
On the other hand, Stubb argues that Finland should not preemptively rule out “any part” of NATO’s nuclear deterrence.
Despite these nuances, Pesu notes that given the lack of significant foreign policy differences, voters are likely to base their decision on their political preferences.
“It will be perhaps more along the right-left divide, even if that isn’t unequivocal either,” he said, highlighting that “both are liberals from an international policy perspective.”
“Stubb’s liberalism aligns closely with Western organizations and values, whereas Haavisto places more emphasis on global entities like the UN, peace, and development,” he added.
“Stubb has always embodied a certain type of modern politician, known for his openness in communication and willingness to challenge established norms.”
“In contrast, Haavisto represents a more traditional and cautious approach typical of Finnish politics.”
Voter turnout in the first round stood at an impressive 75 percent.