By Jussi Rosendahl and Eero Vassinen
HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland's leading presidential candidate Sauli Niinisto said Monday he will not push for the country to join NATO if he is elected, despite his party's enthusiasm for membership of the military alliance.
Many Finns fear that joining NATO could provoke neighboring Russia after decades of neutrality during and since the Cold War. However, leading politicians in Niinisto's right-leaning National Coalition party have spoken in favor of membership for Finland, which fought the Soviet Union during World War Two.
Party members Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen and EU minister Alexander Stubb have both said joining NATO would strengthen Finland's security.
"But not me," Niinisto told Reuters before the first round of the presidential election on January 22. "I have never directly proposed membership for Finland," he said in an interview.
Niinisto did say in a political survey in 2007 that Finland should join NATO but only if the alliance, of which the United States is a leading member, were more "European."
One of the Finnish president's few executive powers is as military commander-in-chief but a decision on NATO leadership would probably need broad government support. Niinisto has said that any decision would also require a referendum.
Opinion polls show Niinisto, a former finance minister and speaker of parliament, is the clear favorite with support of close to 40 percent, while others have below 10 percent backing. A run-off vote between the top two candidates may be held in February.
Surveys also show a majority of Finns oppose joining the alliance, although over 75 percent of Finland's high-ranking military officers support membership.
President Tarja Halonen - who once beat Niinisto in a presidential election but whose maximum 12-year term ends in March - has opposed NATO membership. Analysts have said her successor could raise the issue.
Proponents say membership would improve the efficiency and credibility of Finland's defense force, which already cooperates with NATO.
(editing by David Stamp)