Finns to elect president with incumbent seen scoring win

Finns are voting for a new president in an election that's expected to see the highly popular incumbent score a win during Sunday's first round.

President Sauli Niinisto, a 69-year-old lawyer and former finance minister, is seeking another six-year term to head the European Union nation of 5.5 million. His pragmatic style clearly appeals to the majority of Finns, and the latest polls by the largest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat and national public broadcaster YLE predict him winning with between 58 and 63 percent of the votes respectively.

That's far ahead of his closest rival Pekka Haavisto of the Greens, the runner-up in the 2012 election, who is expected to garner some 14 percent of votes.

Of Niinisto's seven rival candidates — whom local media have dubbed the "Seven Dwarves" — perhaps the most striking is the populist Finns Party's Laura Huhtasaari, who has been running on an anti-immigration and anti-European Union platform resemble the presidential campaign of France's Marie Le Pen. Huhtasaari has failed to gather more than some six percent support in polls.

Niinisto runs as an independent candidate with no associations to the conservative National Coalition Party he earlier chaired to distance himself from party politics.

The role of president designs the blueprint for the Nordic country's foreign and security policy together with the government. As the head of state, the president is the key foreign policy player in Finland particularly on issues outside the EU. The president also acts as the supreme commander of military forces and can veto legislation.

To most Finns, the president's key task is to assure friendly ties with both neighboring Russia, which shares a 1,340 kilometer (833-mile) border with Finland, and the West, particularly the United States.

Judged by his vast popularity, Niinisto has seemingly handled well this fine balancing act — a long-running tradition in the Nordic nation that doesn't belong to NATO. Finland joined the EU in 1995.

If no candidate achieves a majority, the top two will face each other in a runoff on Feb. 11.