HELSINKI – By selecting two pro-European candidates for a presidential runoff, Finnish voters rebelled against the image of their country as inward-looking and euroskeptic that took shape after the populist True Finns surged in last year’s parliamentary elections.
The winner of Sunday’s presidential vote, Conservative Sauli Niinisto, will face Greens candidate Pekka Haavisto in a runoff next month. Niinisto got 37 per cent while Haavisto got 18.8 per cent of the votes, to secure a place in the runoff on Feb. 5.
Both are staunchly pro-European and approve of bailouts for debt-ridden eurozone partners.
Two anti-euro candidates, including True Finns leader Timo Soini, who got 9.4 per cent of the votes, finished third and fourth.
Political analyst Jan Sundberg said the result shows the Europe-bashing populists “don’t rule the roost” in Finland.
“Finns are very aware — overly aware — of their image and this sends a positive signal abroad in their minds because Finland must have a good image,” Sundberg said Monday.
The True Finns quadrupled their support in last year’s parliamentary ballot, with demands that Finland stop supporting bailouts for debt-stricken eurozone members including Greece and Portugal.
Though the party, now known as just The Finns, remained in opposition, the Conservative-led government sensed the anti-European winds blowing through the country, and demanded collateral for any future eurozone rescue packages.
Meanwhile, doubts grew in Europe over Finland’s commitment to the eurozone.
The presidential election has tempered the image of Finns as euroskeptic, even though the president is largely a figurehead, with little influence over economic policy.
Niinisto said the vote on Sunday reflected a “protest mood” and backlash against the views of the populists.
“Anti-European views did not work well,” an upbeat Niinisto said Monday as he toured the harbour-side market square in Helsinki.
Soini denied that voters protested against his party in Sunday’s vote.
“It wasn’t a question of that at all,” Soini said, adding that the candidates who attacked his views most vehemently during presidential campaigning had not been successful.
“But Pekka Haavisto, who is a true liberal and extended his hand (to us) … even though we disagree on many issues, was successful,” Soini said in an interview with YLE TV.
Both Niinisto and Haavisto have strong European and international credentials.
Niinisto, 63, was vice-president of the European Investment Bank and a board member of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 1996-2003.
The 53-year-old Haavisto was the EU’s special representative in Sudan and Darfur, and has held various positions in U.N. operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Liberia. He is the first openly gay presidential candidate in Finland.
Karoliina Hoppu, a 29-year-old architect, praised Niinisto and Haavisto for being internationally and European-oriented.
“It’s a good message abroad — that Finland is pro-European and that that’s the predominant mood here,” she said.
Jari Tanner contributed to this report.