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Finland votes in presidential election amid Russia tensions

A likely second round of voting between the two top candidates is expected to take place on February 11

A likely second round of voting between the two top candidates is expected to take place on February 11

Voters in Finland are heading to the polls on Sunday to begin the process of electing a new head of state.

Nine candidates are in the running to replace incumbent President Sauli Niinisto, 75, who is required to step down after serving two six-year terms.

None of the contenders is expected to win an outright majority, meaning a runoff between the top two candidates will likely take place in two weeks.

Some 4.5 million citizens are eligible to vote.

Who are the candidates?

The center-right National Coalition's Alexander Stubb, a former prime minister, has emerged as the frontrunner, with recent polls giving him 22%-27% support in the election's first round.

Ex-Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, a member of the Green Party who is running as an independent, was also polling strongly on 20%-23% support.

Jussi Halla-aho from the far-right Finns Party has been polling in third place.

Other candidates include Social Democrat European Union Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen and Bank of Finland Governor Olli Rehn.

Why does the role of Finnish president matter?

While the president's powers are limited, the head of state helps direct foreign and security policy in collaboration with the government. The president also acts as supreme commander of Finland's armed forces and represents the country at NATO meetings.

Sunday's election comes at a significant time for Finland. The Nordic country's relations with its neighbor Russia have deteriorated since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

In response, Finland joined NATO in April 2023, ending decades of military non-alignment and prompting threats of "counter measures" from Russia, with which it shares a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) border.

All nine candidates have promised to take a tough stance toward Russia if elected.

Polling stations close at 8 p.m. local time (1800 GMT) on Sunday. Provisional results are expected later in the evening.

nm/sms (AFP, Reuters, dpa)