Voters in Finland are going to the polls to choose who out of two experienced politicians should be their next president.
The winner’s main task will be to steer the Nordic country’s foreign and security policy now that it is a member of Nato, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Former prime minister Alexander Stubb, 55, on the centre right, and former foreign minister Pekka Haavisto, 65, from the green left, largely agree on Finland’s foreign policy and security priorities.
These include maintaining a hard line toward Moscow and Russia’s current leadership, strengthening security ties with Washington, and the need to help Ukraine both militarily and at a civilian level. Finland shares an 832-mile (1,340km) border with Russia.
Unlike in most European countries, the president of Finland holds executive power in formulating foreign and security policy together with the government, especially concerning countries outside the European Union such as the United States, Russia and China.
The head of state also commands the military – particularly important in Europe’s current security environment and the changed geopolitical situation of Finland, which joined Nato in April 2023 in the aftermath of Russia’s attack on Ukraine a year earlier.
Mr Stubb, a politician with the conservative National Coalition Party, took the top spot in the first round of the election on January 28 with 27.2% percent of the vote, ahead of the eight other candidates, and is the favourite to win the presidency.
He led the government in 2014-2015 and earlier held several other Cabinet posts.
Mr Haavisto, runner-up in the first round with 25.8% of the vote, was Finland’s top diplomat in 2019-2023 and the main negotiator of its entry into Nato. He is a former conflict mediator with the United Nations and a devout environmentalist.
This is his third bid for the presidency. He is running as an independent although he is a former leader of the Green League.
In the last days of campaigning tiny differences in style and approach between the candidates have emerged.
Mr Stubb and Mr Haavisto differ in their stance on the hypothetical question of whether Finland would allow the transportation of the alliance’s nuclear weapons through its territory.
“Nuclear weapons are a strong element of our deterrence and our security. We signed our Nato agreement without any kind of limits,” Mr Stubb told the Associated Press during a campaign event just outside the capital, Helsinki, on Saturday.
But “we (both men) also agree that no-one is offering us nuclear weapons … we don’t want any nuclear weapons.”
Mr Haavisto said on Saturday that he does not favour nuclear arms being transported via Finland in a crisis situation. His country, which has a population of 5.6 million, makes up a substantial part of Nato’s north-eastern flank and is the European Union’s external border in the north.
“I think there hasn’t been any need to transport nuclear weapons to Finland or over Finland,” he said. “As I’ve seen during Nato negotiations, the current nuclear policies of Nato are well-established and there is no need of changing them.”
In November, Helsinki closed all eight official border crossings with its eastern neighbour, alleging that Moscow was using migrants to destabilise Finland in an alleged act of “hybrid warfare”.
Both Mr Stubb and Mr Haavisto support the measure by the centre-right government of Prime Minister Petteri Orpo.
A run-off was required because none of the candidates got more than half of the votes.
More than four million people are eligible to vote.
The winner will succeed highly popular President Sauli Niinisto, whose second six-year term expires in March and who is not eligible for re-election.