By Jussi Rosendahl and Sakari Suoninen
LAHTI Finland (Reuters) - Finland's EU minister Alexander Stubb, who wants to cut taxes and take his neutral country into NATO, won the leadership of his ruling conservative party on Saturday, putting him on track to become prime minister later this month.
British and U.S. -educated Stubb, 46, a polyglot sportsman, will take over Finland's five-party governing coalition after Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen steps down, possibly as early as next Thursday. Finland holds a general election in April 2015.
"We have to aim at maximising Finland's national security and being part of decision-making, and that happens best as a NATO member," Stubb told Reuters after delegates at a congress of his National Coalition party elected him as their leader.
"It is absolutely clear that we have to have a comprehensive debate about that," said Stubb. He declined to say whether he favoured a referundum on joining NATO.
Since the Ukraine crisis erupted, Stubb has stepped up his long-standing support for joining the NATO alliance, but opinion polls show only one fifth of Finland's 5.5 million people agree with him.
Finland shares a 1,300 km border with Russia, which is strongly opposed to enlargement of the Atlantic alliance.
The current government's programme states that Finland will not seek NATO membership during its term but Stubb, who argues that politicians have a responsibility to shape public opinion, says he wants that stance to change during the next parliament.
CUTTING TAX, DEBT
Stubb, who is currently minister for foreign trade as well as for European Union affairs, takes over a country whose economy has contracted for two years in a row and may shrink again this year.
"I support cutting taxes," he told a news conference after Saturday's vote. "I am certain we can end falling further into debt in the coming years."
Stubb, who holds a doctorate in international relations from the London School of Economics, has also said he wants to reduce state ownership in companies, but that the state can also help to smooth out painful structural changes in industry.
He has said he admires economic reforms made over the last decade by Sweden and Germany, which have rebounded more strongly from the global financial crisis than Finland.
The father of two comes from Finland's Swedish-speaking minority and, as well as English and Swedish, also speaks French and German. His wife Suzanne is British.
Stubb is an active user of social media and counts tweeting as well as triathlons and golf among his hobbies.
Prime Minister Katainen, 42, is stepping down to seek a high-level EU job.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)