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Finland’s president wins another 6-year term

Finland’s leftist president won another six-year term Sunday after her conservative challenger conceded defeat in their runoff election.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Finland’s leftist president won another six-year term Sunday after her conservative challenger conceded defeat in Finland’s presidential runoff election.

President Tarja Halonen and her opponent, Sauli Niinisto, had presented similar visions for neutral Finland’s foreign policy — the president’s primary domain.

Halonen, a former Social Democrat, had nearly 52 percent to Niinisto’s 48 percent, with all the votes counted. Social Democratic candidates have held the president’s post since 1982, although the head of state must give up party affiliation when taking office.

“It’s back to work on Monday,” said Halonen, 62, complimenting Niinisto on his unexpectedly strong challenge.

“The man has lost,” Niinisto said, kissing her hand.

Both advocate close ties with NATO, but Niinisto was considered to be more open to membership in the Western alliance, a sensitive issue in a country that shares a 800-mile border with former enemy Russia.

The Finnish head of state is not involved in day-to-day politics, and there is wide agreement on the other main issues, including satisfaction with Finland’s European Union membership since 1995, fostering good ties with neighboring Russia and close cooperation with NATO.

Halonen had been widely expected to clinch a second six-year term, but her re-election appeared less certain as Niinisto, a 57-year-old former finance minister, rallied in the days leading up to Sunday’s runoff. Turnout in the vote was 77 percent.

Since taking office in 2000, Halonen has enjoyed high approval ratings in the egalitarian country that was the first in Europe to give women voting rights.

She also got an unusual endorsement from fellow redhead Conan O’Brien, the NBC late-night talk show host who promoted her re-election bid as part of a running joke about their supposed physical similarities.

In one show, O’Brien presented a mock ad for Halonen in which he and two Finns discussed the election while ice fishing.

In the first round, Halonen, a former trade union lawyer, won 46 percent of votes, and Niinisto came second with 24 percent in a field of eight candidates. The runoff was needed since neither obtained the necessary majority.

Tapani Vaahtoranta, head of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said Halonen’s victory means the country of 5.2 million likely will not join NATO during her next term.

“She didn’t imply in any way during her campaign that she might make changes in Finland’s policy of being nonaligned,” Vaahtoranta said.