Voters in Finland will choose a president to shape a new NATO era

Finns will elect a new president on Sunday in the first national election since the country joined NATO, choosing a leader who will be key to shaping the country’s role in the alliance at a time of growing ties with Russia.

Beyond the borders of the sparsely populated northern European country of 5.6 million, the election may generally receive less attention. But Finland, NATO’s newest member, shares the longest border with Russia – about 830 miles – and its politics have drawn particular interest from its European and American allies as the geopolitical system changes.

American power is being challenged by Moscow and Beijing, and Europe is grappling with its largest land war since World War II. At the same time, the US commitment to aid Ukraine continues to be in doubt and the threat of an unpredictable US presidential election looms.

The President of Finland is responsible for foreign policy, and whoever wins will have the main responsibility for running the country in a changing world.

“The future president is going to have an impact on what kind of NATO country Finland will be in the future,” said Jenny Karimäki, a political analyst at the University of Helsinki. “NATO membership is one of the things driving interest in these elections – and, of course, the overall global political situation.”

Finland’s decision to join NATO was a sharp break with decades Non-alignment, and the risks and responsibilities of the country’s new place in the world, dominated the campaign to decide who would succeed the popular Sauli Niinistö, whose second six-year term ends in March.

The two candidates who made it into Sunday’s runoff – Alexander Stubb of the center-right National Coalition party, and Pekka Haavisto of the center-left Green League – have both strongly supported the decision to join NATO and have taken a tough stance. Line view on Russia. The differences between them have been mostly stylistic.

Mr Stubb, a former prime minister who received the most votes in the first round, has seen his security credentials tarnished.

“I’m as aggressive as the best of them, there’s no doubt about that,” he told The New York Times.

He said that countering Russia has become more difficult in the era of hybrid warfare. There has been an increase in cyber attacks, some of which have been claimed by Russian hackers.

Of most concern to voters is the sudden increase in the number of asylum seekers crossing the Russian border into Finland, which many in Finland see as a sign of Russia’s response to NATO membership. Moscow warned that “countermeasures” would be taken if Finland joined NATO.

“The line between war and peace has blurred,” Mr Stubb said. “The Russians are very good at hybrid warfare.” He said: “They will do everything to intimidate or destabilize Finland and especially public opinion. But so far, they have failed completely.

Mr Haavisto, who was minister of foreign affairs from 2019 to 2023, has used his credentials as one of the main negotiators for Finland’s entry into NATO to show that his stance on Russia is equally tough. . But he has shown caution even in taking the most aggressive positions. His identity has been formed over the years As peace negotiator for the United Nations, Finland and the European Union.

The difference in approach between the two candidates became clearly evident during a debate. Asked whether he would respond to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s congratulatory call if he won the election, the two diverged: Mr. Stubb said he would not. But Mr Haavisto said he would do so.

There are only a few other positions that really differentiate the candidates, such as their stance on nuclear weapons. Mr Stubb has said he would be willing to allow the coalition to transport its nuclear weapons into Finnish territory, while Mr Haavisto said he would not.

However, this question remains hypothetical, as current Finnish law prohibits nuclear weapons on Finnish territory, and the President cannot make laws.

Mr. Haavisto has traveled around the country holding listening sessions at gas station centers, a common hangout spot in small towns in rural Finland.

He has also organized several campaign events in which he DJed himself using his alias DJ Pexi, playing everything from The Beatles to Belgian punk. One of his last campaign events was a concert in which several famous Finnish musicians performed.

“It is important for me to vote for Pekka Haavisto because I want to preserve the last vestiges of peace in an increasingly belligerent world,” said social media influencer Eino Nurmisto, who attended the concert.

Mr Stubb, a keen athlete, started the second leg of his expedition with a walk through central Helsinki, and has organized cross-country skiing expedition events. He also opened several cafes across the country for voters to stop by and escape the cold temperatures with coffee, sweets and campaign material.

“We are living in a time that will be very important for the future of Finland,” said Claes-Henrik Taucher, warming up with a coffee in a café in Helsinki.

Beyond Russia, there is another concern across the Atlantic: the coalition’s outspoken critic Donald J. Should Trump, who has even suggested the United States leave it, win the presidential election in November, what would happen to Finland’s NATO membership?

Matti Pesu of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs said, “The whole decision to join NATO was based on the idea that the United States, Americans, are here to stay and that the American commitment is going to be long-term.” “If the US decided to weaken its commitment, it would be a great irony, and it would weaken the deterrent value of Finland’s NATO membership.”