Finns will elect a new president on Sunday in the first national election since the country joined NATO, choosing a leader who will be critical to shaping the country’s role in the alliance at a time of increasingly strained relations with Russia.
The election may typically receive little attention beyond the borders of the sparsely populated northern European country of 5.6 million people. But Finland, NATO’s newest member, shares the longest border with Russia — about 830 miles — and its policy has drawn particular interest to its European and American allies as the geopolitical order shifts.
US power is being challenged by Moscow and Beijing, and Europe is grappling with the biggest land war since World War II. At the same time, the US commitment to help Ukraine looks increasingly doubtful and an unpredictable US presidential election is approaching.
Finland’s president is in charge of foreign policy, and whoever wins will bear the primary responsibility for guiding the country through a changing world.
“The future president will have an impact on what kind of NATO country Finland will be in the future,” said Jenny Karimaki, a political analyst at the University of Helsinki. “NATO membership is one of the things that creates interest in this election — and of course, the overall world political situation.”
Finland’s decision to join NATO was a sharp break with decades Non-alignment and the risks and responsibilities of the country’s new place in the world have dominated the campaign over who should succeed the popular Sauli Niinisto, whose second six-year term ends in March.
The two candidates who advanced to Sunday’s second round — Alexander Stubb, of the center-right National Coalition Party, and Pekka Haavisto, of the center-left Green League — strongly supported the decision to join NATO and take a hard line view on Russia. The differences between them were mainly stylistic.
Mr Stubb, a former prime minister who had the most votes in the first round, played up his security credentials.
“I’m as hawkish as the best of them, there’s no doubt about it,” he told the New York Times.
He said dealing with Russia had become more difficult in an era of hybrid warfare. There has been an explosion in cyber attacks, some of which have been claimed by Russian hackers.
Among the most worrying issues for voters was the sudden increase in asylum seekers crossing into Finland via the Russian border, which many in Finland see as a signal from Russia in response to its NATO membership. Moscow had warned that there would be “countermeasures” to Finland’s NATO membership.
“The line between war and peace is blurred,” Mr. Stubb said. “The Russians are very good at hybrid warfare.” He added: “They will do everything to intimidate or destabilize Finland and especially public opinion. But so far, they have failed completely.”
Mr Haavisto, who was foreign minister from 2019 to 2023, used his credentials as one of the main negotiators for Finland’s NATO membership to show that his stance on Russia is just as tough. But he has also shown reticence about the most hawkish positions. His identity has been shaped over the years as a peace negotiator for the United Nations, Finland and the European Union.
The difference in approach between the two candidates became memorably clear in one of the debates. Asked whether they would return a congratulatory call from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia if they won the election, the two parted ways: Mr. Stubb said he would not. But Mr Haavisto said he would.
There are only a few other positions that really set the candidates apart, such as their stance on nuclear weapons. Mr Stubb said he would be willing to allow the alliance to move its nuclear weapons on Finnish soil, while Mr Haavisto said he would not.
However, the question remains hypothetical, as current Finnish law prohibits nuclear weapons on Finnish soil and the president cannot legislate.
Mr. Haavisto has traveled the country holding listening sessions in gas station centers, a common haunt in smaller towns across rural Finland.
He has also organized several campaign events where he DJed himself using the moniker DJ Pexi, playing everything from the Beatles to Belgian punk. One of the last events of his campaign was a concert in which famous Finnish musicians played.
“Voting for Pekka Haavisto is important to me, because I want to keep the last piece of peace in an increasingly warring world,” said Eino Nurmisto, a social media influencer who attended the concert.
Mr Stubb, an avid sportsman, started his second round of campaigning with a walk through central Helsinki and has organized cross-country skiing campaign events. He also opened a series of coffee shops across the country for voters to stop and escape the cold temperatures with coffee, sweets and campaign paraphernalia.
“We are living in times that will be very important for the future of Finland,” said Claes-Henrik Taucher, warming up in a Helsinki cafe with a coffee.
Beyond Russia, there’s another worry, across the Atlantic: What’s in store for Finland’s NATO membership if Donald J. Trump, an outspoken critic of the alliance who has even suggested the United States withdraw from it, wins the presidential election in November?
“The whole decision to join NATO was based on the idea that the US, the Americans, is here to stay and that the US commitment is long-term,” said Matti Pesu of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “If the US decided to weaken its commitment, it would be a huge irony and would weaken the deterrent value of Finland joining NATO.”