Finns voted on Sunday to elect their president, whose role has become more important amid soaring tensions with neighboring Russia since the war in Ukraine.
Although the head of state has more limited powers than the prime minister, he still directs foreign policy in close cooperation with the government and is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Finland remained neutral during the Cold War and last year became NATO's 31st member, much to the dismay of Russia, with which it shares a 1,340-kilometer border.
According to polls, two politicians are at the top of the nine candidates for the first round of this presidential election: former conservative Prime Minister Alexander Stubb and former Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto from the Green Party.
The far-right Finnish Party candidate Jussi Halla-aho is in third place in these polls and could be a spoilsport, experts say.
Polling stations opened at 09:00 local time (07:00 GMT) and closed at 20:00 (18:00 GMT).
A president with “leadership skills and humanity” is needed. Of course he has to be tough when necessary,” said Hannu Kuusitie, a voter who came to a district in central Helsinki to vote.
Relations between Finland and Russia have deteriorated significantly since February 2022 and the Russian offensive in Ukraine.
After its neighbor joined NATO in April 2023, Moscow promised “countermeasures.” Finland has faced an influx of migrants, particularly on its eastern border.
Helsinki accused Moscow of orchestrating a migration crisis on its doorstep and closed its border with Russia in November, a measure supported by all candidates.
“Russia and especially Vladimir Putin are using people as a weapon,” said Alexander Stubb on Thursday evening during the last television debate. “In this case, we must put Finland’s security first,” he added.
For its main rival Pekka Haavisto, Helsinki had to “send a clear message that things cannot continue like this.”
As a member of the EU and the Eurozone, post-Cold War Finland placed great emphasis on developing economic relations with its large neighbor in the hope that this would lead to democratic development.
Outgoing President Sauli Niinistö, who is stepping down after reaching the limit of two six-year terms, was proud to have maintained close ties with Vladimir Putin before becoming one of the Russian president's fiercest opponents in Europe.
In this context, all presidential candidates defend Finland's independence and its new role as a NATO member, emphasizes Hanna Wass, vice dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki.
“They all emphasize Finland's self-reliance, that the country should undertake its defense independently and actively contribute to building common European defense and Nordic cooperation,” Ms Wass told AFP.
The election will be decided more by the personality of the candidates, agrees Tuomas Forsberg, professor of foreign policy at the University of Tampere.
“The differences lie in nuances in foreign policy,” he said.
“It will be more about choosing a personality, taking into account their credibility, their reliability and their perceived qualities as a leader in foreign policy,” he told AFP.
A poll released on Thursday by public television Yleplace gave Mr. Stubb, 55, leader of the conservative National Coalition Party, 27% of the vote, ahead of Mr. Haavisto (23%) and Mr. Halla-aho (18%). .
The conservative Alexander Stubb was Prime Minister of Finland between 2014 and 2015. Pekka Haavisto held several ministerial positions.
“Both have extensive experience in domestic and foreign policy that is valued by voters,” Ms. Wass said.
Their idea of the function is similar, but their personalities are different, emphasizes Forsberg.
“Alex (Stubb) is more of a representative of the right and Haavisto more of the left, although Haavisto tried to emphasize that there was nothing red about him, that he had taken a middle path as a Green,” said Forsberg.
In the event of a second round of voting on Sunday, February 11, and if no candidate receives 50% of the vote in the first round, “the debates could be decisive,” the professor adds.