Image: Tarja Halonen
Kimmo Mntyl  /  AP
Finnish President Tarja Halonen speaks in Helskinki, Finland after casting her ballot on Sunday. She needs 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.
updated 1/15/2006 2:46:00 PM ET 2006-01-15T19:46:00

Incumbent Tarja Halonen failed to win the 50 percent of votes needed to secure re-election in Finland's presidential ballot Sunday, forcing a runoff against conservative challenger Sauli Niinisto, official results showed.

With 94.4 percent of the votes counted, Halonen had 46.4 percent, well ahead of Niinisto with 23.7 percent. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen was third with 19.1 percent.

Halonen needed more than half of the votes to secure a second six-year term in a country that prides itself on egalitarian values and was the first in Europe to give women the right to vote a century ago.

Earlier Sunday, as she voted in the working class district of Helsinki where she grew up, she told reporters she had gone for a morning swim in the icy Baltic Sea, a popular pastime for hardy Finns.

“It gives me a lot of energy,” said Halonen, 62, a keen swimmer. “It was a bit cold but very refreshing.”

In the weeks ahead of the election, her victory seemed less assured, with polls showing a diminishing lead over her main rivals, Niinisto, a former finance minister, and Vanhanen, the centrist government leader.

Just days before the election, surveys indicated that the hugely popular president was losing support, with analysts predicting a second round in two weeks.

In Helsinki, voters expected Halonen to win re-election, even if it takes a runoff.

“There could be a second round, but of course it is very likely that the current president will continue,” said 26-year-old Paivi Koskimaa, who would not reveal whom she voted for but said it was not Halonen.

Appeal spans beyond party lines
A former left-wing trade union lawyer, Halonen’s appeal crosses party lines. Before being elected president in 2000, she was foreign minister for five years and is equally at ease with world leaders as with working-class Finns.

And in the home of Nokia, the world’s largest cell phone maker, Halonen has been quick to catch onto trends by accepting a marriage proposal six years ago via SMS text messages rather than talking on the phone, for fear of personnel overhearing.

The election is more about character than issues as the Finnish head of state has few powers and is not involved in daily politics.

Also, there is wide agreement on foreign policy, the main domain of the president, whose powers are limited to working in close cooperation with the prime minister and government.

All three main candidates approve of Finland’s 1995 membership of the European Union, good ties with neighboring Russia and close cooperation with NATO.

But they have avoided calling for membership in the alliance, also opposed by the majority of this nation of 5.2 million that shares a 800-mile border with Russia, a former enemy.

It was the third time that Finns were able to vote directly for a president since 1994. Previously an electoral college of lawmakers and politicians chose the head of state.

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