Alexander Stubb, who likely earned 27.3%, will now face runner-up Pekka Haavisto, who likely earned 25.8%, in next month’s runoff.
Finnish public broadcaster YLE also predicted that Parliament Speaker Jussi Halla-aho would come in third place with 18.6%.
The expected result will push the race to a runoff on Feb. 11 between Stubb and Haavisto, because neither candidate received more than half the votes.
YLE’s prediction, very accurate in previous elections, is a mathematical model calculated on the basis of early votes and a certain number of votes on Sunday according to official data provided by the Legal Register Centre. Exit polls are not generally used in Finland.
Stubb, 55, and Haavisto, 65, were the main contenders in the election. Some 4.5 million eligible voters chose a successor from nine candidates to hugely popular President Sauli Niinistö, whose second six-year term expires in March. He was not eligible for re-election.
The initial voter turnout was calculated to be 74.9%.
Stubb represents the conservative National Coalition party and led the Finnish government in 2014-2015, while veteran politician Haavisto, a former UN diplomat and member of the Green League, is running for the third time as an independent candidate.
Unlike most European countries, the president of Finland holds executive power in formulating foreign and security policy, particularly when dealing with countries outside the European Union such as the United States, Russia, and China.
The president also serves as supreme commander of the Finnish army, a particularly important task in the current European security environment.
The main themes of the elections were foreign and security policy issues such as Finland’s recent membership in NATO, future policies towards Russia, strengthening security cooperation with the United States and the need to continue helping the Ukraine both militarily and with humanitarian assistance.
Finland’s new head of state will begin his six-year term in March in a markedly different geopolitical and security situation in Europe compared to that of incumbent President Niinistö after the 2018 elections.
Abandoning decades of military nonalignment following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland became NATO’s 31st member in April, much to the irritation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who shares a 1,340-kilometer border with the Nordic nation.
NATO membership, which made Finland the frontline country of the Western military alliance vis-à-vis Russia, and the war raging in Ukraine just 1,000 kilometers from the Finnish border have strengthened the president’s status as a political leader safety.
As Foreign Minister, Haavisto signed Finland’s historic NATO accession treaty last year and played a key role in the accession process together with Niinistö and former Prime Minister Sanna Marin.
Finland’s western neighbor Sweden is set to join NATO in the near future, while the last holdout, Hungary, is expected to ratify Stockholm’s candidacy by the end of February.