January 29, 2006

Finland votes in close presidential run-off

By Rex Merrifield

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland's first woman president faced
a tight race with her conservative challenger as voters cast
ballots on Sunday in an election run-off.

Opinion polls had given left-leaning President Tarja
Halonen, who is seeking a second and final six-year term, a
slim lead despite a swell of support for her opponent, moderate
rightist Sauli Niinisto.

The incumbent, backed by the Social Democratic Party and
leftist and labor groups, has campaigned as "the president for
all the people," on a platform of equality and preserving the
welfare state in Finland, on Europe's northern outskirts.

Niinisto, a banker who styles himself as "the workers'
president," has argued in favor of economic and social reforms
to create jobs and ensure Finland's continued prosperity.

The last surveys before the vote gave Halonen between 51
and 55 percent support, well down from the more than 60 percent
she had a few weeks earlier. Niinisto had 45 percent with
nearly a fifth of those polled not saying whom they would pick.

"I think most of the people are very fair people," said
Halonen after casting her ballot in a working-class district on
a bright, cold Helsinki morning.

"This is a democratic state and of course I respect their
choice, but I am sure that I will be their choice."

Polls close at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT), with the final result
expected later on Sunday.

The election comes a century after Finland became the first
country to grant women the right to stand for political office.


Halonen, a 62-year-old former labor lawyer, was a single
mother when she was elected in 2000.

Despite showing a quick temper and some impatience in
television debates, she retains a somewhat motherly image among
the 4.3 million voters.

"She's more human," said a 27-year-old teaching student who
identified herself only as Kaisu. "She thinks globally, but she
is still in touch with the people and has done a good job."

Most of the president's powers were cut when Halonen took
office, although the head of state still decides foreign policy
in cooperation with the government and is commander-in-chief of
the defense force.

Relations with the European Union, which Finland joined in
1995, are largely handled by the prime minister.

Halonen's presidency has coincided with a good period for
the economy. Home to mobile phone giant Nokia, it ranks among
the most competitive since recovering from a deep 1990s slump
after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a major trading

Niinisto, a vice-president of the Luxembourg-based European
Investment Bank, says continued success is not guaranteed in a
country with Europe's most rapidly aging population profile.
Tough decisions are needed to ensure the survival of the social
security system, he says.

Niinisto, 57, dated a former Miss Finland and is a keen
roller-blader. He survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in
Thailand by clinging to a pole while the waters receded.

"I want a change, that's why I am going for Niinisto," said
housewife Marietta Turunen, 51. "He's also very good-looking."

He has won backing from many supporters of the Center
Party, which leads the ruling coalition.

Relations with Russia remain the major but often unspoken
issue in the security debate, with Finns still wary of their
hulking neighbor more than 60 years after they were at war.