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Former PM Alexander Stubb wins Finnish presidency, narrowly defeating ex-top diplomat Pekka Haavisto

National Coalition Party (NCP) presidential candidate Alexander Stubb, centre kisses his wife after hearing the results of the advance votes, at Stubb's election reception, in Helsinki, Finland, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. Voters in Finland are choosing Sunday between two experienced politicians to be their next president, whose 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. (Emmi Korhonen./Lehtikuva via AP)

HELSINKI (AP) — Former Prime Minister Alexander Stubb won Finland’s election runoff Sunday against ex-Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto in a close race for the presidency and the task of steering the Nordic country’s foreign and security policy now that it is a member of NATO, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

With all votes counted, center-right candidate Stubb of the National Coalition Party had 51.6% of the votes, while independent candidate Haavisto from the green left got 48.4% of the votes.

The 55-year-old Stubb, who was prime minister in 2014-2015 and started his political career as a lawmaker at the European Parliament in 2004, will become the 13th president of Finland since the Nordic country’s independence from the Russian empire in 1917.

Haavisto conceded defeat after a projection by the Finnish public broadcaster YLE showing a win for Stubb was released Sunday night. He shook Stubb's hand and congratulated him at Helsinki City Hall, where the candidates and the media were watching the results come in.

The months' long election campaign was polite and non-confrontational in line with consensus-driven Finnish politics with no below-the-belt attacks from any of the candidates - something that Stubb noted in his speech to Haavisto.

“This has been a fair, great race,” Stubb told Haavisto after the result was clear. “I'm proud that I have been able to run with you in these elections. Thanks for a good race.”

Stubb and Haavisto, 65, were the main contenders in the election where over 4 million eligible voters picked a successor to hugely popular President Sauli Niinistö, whose second six-year term expires in March. He wasn’t eligible for reelection.

Sunday’s runoff was required because none of the original nine candidates got more than half of the votes in Jan. 28 first round. Stubb emerged at the top with 27.3%, with Haavisto the runner-up on 25.8%.

Several polls indicated Stubb, who has also served as Finland's foreign, finance and European affairs minister, was the favorite to win the presidency.

Initial voter turnout was 70.7%, markedly lower than during the first voting round when it was 75%.

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.

During the election campaign, Stubb and Haavisto largely agreed 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 a 1,340-kilometer (832-mile) border with Russia.

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.

Ukraine’ President Voldymyr Zelenskyy was among the first foreign dignitaries to send “sincere congratulations” to Stubb, a staunch supporter of Kyiv, on his win.

Zelenskyy said in message on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “Ukraine and Finland, in solidarity with other partners, are strengthening the security of the entire Europe and each nation on our continent. I look forward to advancing our relations and our shared vision of a free, united, and well-defended Europe.”

The Finnish president is expected to remain above the fray of day-to-day politics and largely to stay out of domestic political disputes.

Haavisto was Finland’s top diplomat in 2019-2023 and the main negotiator of its entry into NATO. A former conflict mediator with the United Nations and a passionate environmentalist, this was his third bid for the presidency.

Jari Tanner, The Associated Press

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