NEW: Sauli Niinisto gained 62.6% of the vote, preliminary results show
Opponent Pekka Haavisto is Finland's first openly gay presidential candidate
The vote pits a former finance minister against an ex-environment minister
Both candidates are pro-Europe at a time when the EU is in crisis
Former Finnish Finance Minister Sauli Niinisto emerged victorious in the nation’s presidential election Sunday, according to preliminary results.
According to Finland’s Ministry of Justice, with 100% of votes counted, Niinisto defeated the nation’s first openly gay presidential candidate, Pekka Haavisto, with 62.6% of the vote compared to Haavisto’s 37.4%.
Both were vying to succeed Tarja Halonen, Finland’s first female president, who cannot run for re-election.
In the first round of voting on January 28, the conservative Niinisto took just under 37% of the vote.
Haavisto, a pro-European Green League candidate, got 18.8%, claiming the No. 2 spot and narrowly edging out euro-skeptic Paavo Vayrynen, who had 17.5%.
The winner of Sunday’s vote between Niinisto and Haavisto will break a 30-year lock on the presidency by Halonen’s Social Democrats.
Halonen, who is completing her second term as president, defeated Niinisto, of the conservative National Coalition Party, in 2006.
Both candidates are pro-Europe at a time when the European Union is facing a debt crisis that could threaten the bloc’s common currency, the euro.
The most vocally anti-Europe candidate, Timo Soini of the True Finns party, came in fourth last week, though his party is the third largest in parliament.
Finland joined the euro when it was created, when Niinisto was finance minister. He insists Finland should stay in the eurozone despite the debt crisis that has taken some of the shine off the common currency.
His party won the top share of votes in last April’s parliamentary election, and leads a broad coalition government that includes the Social Democrats.
Finland is one of the few remaining AAA-rated countries in the eurozone. But 2012 is expected to deliver a growth of only 0.4%, with the possibility of a new recession, its finance ministry reports.
It has had to take part in the bailouts of other euro states that faced deep financial problems such as Greece and Ireland. Many Finns now see Niinisto – who also served as deputy chairman of the European Investment Bank – as someone who can stand up for Finland’s interests in the single currency.
Haavisto, meanwhile, has served as Finland’s environment and development minister and has international experience working for the European Union and the United Nations in Sudan and the Middle East.
Finland’s president is in charge of the country’s foreign policy, together with the government, and serves as commander-in-chief of its defense forces.
But recent changes have seen more power being given to the government and parliament, and former President Mauno Koivisto told YLE that there was a risk of an “imbalance” between the direct public election of the president and the office’s diminishing power.