Pro-EU Niinisto wins Finnish presidency: early results

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 05, 2012 2:58 PM
Pro-EU Niinisto wins Finnish presidency: early results

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Pro-Europe politician Sauli Niinisto won Finland's presidency, according to early results in Sunday's run-off election, showing voters want to keep the country in the euro zone despite their misgivings over European Union bailouts.

The former finance minister won the symbolic leadership post with 63 percent support with 98 percent of the vote counted, defeating pro-euro Greens Party candidate Pekka Haavisto.

The two had beaten anti-euro candidates, Paavo Vayrynen of the Center party and Timo Soini of the Finns Party, in an earlier round last month.

The weak showing by the euro skeptics was a relief for Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, who like Niinisto is a member of the National Coalition party which supports conservative economic policy and liberal social values.

As president, Niinisto will have little executive power beyond military and foreign affairs and must suspend his party affiliation, but his role is high-profile and he has potential influence over public opinion.

An anti-EU president may have put pressure on Katainen to take a harder line on the bloc's bailout of member states.

Niinisto is also supportive of tough fiscal reforms that Katainen is pushing in order to plug its deficit and make sure it retains its triple-A debt rating.

Niinisto - a former lawyer and banker - is credited with leading the small Nordic economy toward growth following the collapse of the Soviet Union during his tenure as finance minister from 1996 to 2001.

Some analysts had expected a stronger showing by anti-euro candidates after Soini's Finns Party made strong gains in parliamentary elections last April. The party is now the biggest opposition group.

Analysts said economic concerns may have persuaded voters to choose a steady and pragmatic pair of hands.

"In tough times people want to believe that somebody is in control of the economy," said University of Helsinki professor Tuomo Martikainen.

Niinisto may have also benefited from a backlash against euro skeptic politicians after some Finns Party candidates made highly publicized racist and homophobic remarks.

While Haavisto, the first openly gay presidential candidate, conceded with 37 percent, his success in the first round was a triumph for his party, a minor member of government with only 10 out of 200 seats in parliament.

President Tarja Halonen was elected as the country's first female president in 2000 and re-elected in 2006. She steps down having served the maximum 12 years in office.

(Reporting by Ritsuko Ando and Terhi Kinnunen)