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article imageFinland's president Niinisto on course for second term

By Rebecca LIEBERMANN (AFP)     Jan 27, 2018 in World

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto is a pragmatic pro-EU conservative whose skill at balancing relations with Moscow and Washington amid heightened tensions is likely to get him re-elected for another six-year term on Sunday.

Niinisto, 69, is running as an independent, placing himself above party politics to concentrate on his top priority: getting Finland under the protection of the US missile shield without upsetting its powerful Russian neighbour with whom it shares a 1,340-kilometre (833-mile) border.

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.

The latest opinion polls credit Niinisto with between 58 and 63 percent of votes, losing ground but still far ahead of the seven other candidates. His main rival, Pekka Haavisto of the Green party, is seen garnering around 13-14 percent support.

Should Niinisto be elected with more than 50 percent of votes in Sunday's first round, it would be a first since the Nordic country introduced a two-round presidential election by popular vote in 1994.

If necessary, a second round of voting will be held on February 11.

Niinisto is the most popular president after Urho Kekkonen, who served from 1956 to 1981, and beating out C.G.E Mannerheim, a military leader seen as the father of modern Finland, comparable to France's Charles de Gaulle, polls show.

- Relations with Putin -

The president of Finland is the head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces, sharing responsibility with the government for defence and foreign policy, though not EU affairs.

During his first term, Niinisto has meticulously cultivated ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been at odds with the West since Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea.

"Niinisto's strategies and tactics have been rather successful, especially handling Putin," Aunesluoma said.

"People get the sense that he has the capacity and tools to cope with the challenges," she added.

At the same time however, Finland, a Russian Grand Duchy from 1809 to 1917, has forged increasingly close ties with the United States and NATO.

"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.

But joining the Alliance is out of the question, as Moscow would perceive it as a provocation or even a justification for war.

- 'Speaks his mind' -

Born into a working-class family in the southwestern Finnish town of Salo in August 1948, Niinisto, the youngest of four children, became a lawyer before entering politics as a member of the conservative National Coalition Party.

He served as justice minister in 1995-1996, before taking over the finance portfolio from 1996-2003.

An advocate of budgetary discipline, Niinisto helped pull Finland out of a deep recession in the 1990s and into the eurozone.

As speaker of parliament between 2007 and 2011, lawmakers accused Niinisto of being arrogant, a trait perceived by many voters as necessary for success on the international scene.

"He speaks his mind, he doesn't play the political game," political analyst Tom Moring said.

Some opponents, such as Social Democrat MP Timo Harakka, accuse Niinisto of being "a social conservative" who does not support same-sex marriage.

- 'Game over' -

Niinisto, the father of two sons, lost his first wife in a car accident in 1995. He narrowly survived the 2004 tsunami in Thailand by climbing a tree with his youngest son. His elder son had sought refuge on a hotel rooftop.

Following a high profile affair with a former beauty queen turned MP, the couple got engaged in 2003 but broke up the following year.

Niinisto's highly publicised relationships and life scarred by tragedy have given him a human image among Finns.

He married his second wife, the Finnish poet Jenni Haukio -- 29 years his junior -- in 2009. The couple announced in October they were expecting a child in February, hitting a soft spot among voters.

"The game is over for the other candidates, you can go home," tweeted Erkka Railo, a political science professor at the University of Turku.

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