HELSINKI — After seven years in the political wilderness, Alexander Stubb is closing in on a remarkable comeback and new top job: president of Finland.
Ahead of a first round of voting this Sunday, Stubb has a 3-percentage-point lead in opinion polls over his nearest rival, Pekka Haavisto of the leftist Green League, who is in turn 6 points ahead of seven other candidates.
In a likely runoff, surveys give Stubb of the center-right National Coalition Party (NCP) the edge against Haavisto, a former foreign minister.
“The opinion polls are looking good right now, I don’t deny that,” Stubb told POLITICO in an interview. “I am feeling positive — but I have been in enough campaigns in my life to know that things can change rapidly.”
Stubb was handed his first ministerial role in 2008 and rose to prime minister by 2014 — but quit Finnish politics in 2017, vowing never to return.
For Finns, directly voting in their new president is a big decision. The head of state has extensive power over foreign policy, is the commander-in-chief of the military and is expected to be a unifying figurehead for society.
Incumbent Sauli Niinistö — on his way out after the maximum of two six-year terms — was a key player in Finland’s momentous decision to join NATO in April 2023.
Political leaders across Europe and beyond will also be watching the Finnish vote with interest, given Finland’s key geostrategic position along NATO’s longest border with an increasingly belligerent Russia.
Stubb’s strong presidential campaign represents a curious political rebound.
A forthright and energetic operator, Stubb won praise as a foreign minister for his unstuffy style. But critics also panned his informality as not serious — objecting to, among other things, the fact that he occasionally wore shorts.
Images of a media stunt in 2014, in which he was attached to a target and pelted by soft darts, have followed him ever since — while on an earlier occasion, he had to apologize after being accused of swearing at a meeting of the Nordic Council, a regional cooperation body.
Analysts say Stubb’s success in the presidential campaign has so far been underpinned by a markedly humbler demeanor than during his time as prime minister; as well as a collegial approach to his opponents.
He has overcome an early polling lead for Haavisto, who is more soft-spoken and a lower-key performer, by remaining calm and respectful, they say.
“He started his campaign with a charm offensive where he mostly said nice and flattering things about the other candidates,” said Teivo Teivainen, a political scientist at the University of Helsinki.
Stubb registered 24 percent support with voters in a survey by Finnish broadsheet MT in mid-January, with Haavisto at 21 percent and far-right firebrand Jussi Halla-aho at 15 percent.
In terms of key policy statements, the two top candidates have both said they will take a hard line on Russia. They also want to unite Finnish society, which has been roiled by a series of racism scandals involving members of the far-right Finns Party, which belongs to the governing coalition.
In a television interview on Finland’s national broadcaster Yle last week, Stubb said he sought to be a “unifying factor” for the country.
In an interview with POLITICO early in the campaign, Haavisto pointed out his strong track record of “bringing different thoughts around the same table.” Among other tricky posts, Haavisto was the European Union envoy to Darfur, Sudan, in 2005.
On a recent weekday on Stubb’s native grounds of Esbo, on the western edge of Helsinki, voters were largely positive about their hometown candidate. Voters said he seemed “experienced on foreign policy” and “professional.”
But some harbored concerns about his style.
“I guess we are used to peacemaker presidents like Niinistö — very calm and contemplative in their style —and Stubb is more a man of action,” said Lasse Seppanen, a 50-year-old gaming executive who was out shopping. “I am a bit worried he might divide people.”
Stubb grew up near Esbo with his father, an ice hockey administrator, and his mother, a housewife. His mother spoke Finnish, while his father spoke Swedish — an official minority language in Finland. He attended school in Finland and later studied in the United States, Belgium and the United Kingdom.
Stubb entered politics in 2004 as a member of the European Parliament before hitting the Finnish big time in 2008 when he was — to his own surprise — named foreign minister by premier Jyrki Katainen, also of the NCP.
When a jaded Katainen stepped aside to take a post as a EU commissioner in 2014, Stubb took over as prime minister mid-term. But his star began to fade in 2015 when the NCP was beaten in parliamentary elections by the liberal Center Party amid an economic slump.
In a documentary produced by Finland’s national broadcaster in 2021, Stubb gave a fairly bleak summary of his time as premier — describing how hard he had found it to work with his Social Democratic finance minister.
He talked about times when “the pressure seemed intolerable” and how close he came to quitting before bringing in a coach to help find a way forward.
In 2016, Stubb was pushed out as leader of the NCP in favor of current prime minister Petteri Orpo. Stubb decamped to Luxembourg where he became vice president of the European Investment Bank. Since 2020, he has worked as a director at the Florence School of Transnational Governance, part of the EU-funded European University Institute.
Stubb said that in 2023, with war raging in Ukraine and Europe’s geopolitical outlook darkening, he didn’t feel he could say no when Orpo asked him to run for president alongside him on behalf of the NCP. He went all in.
For the past several weeks, he has been traversing the country, holding 10 or more events a day including speeches, debates and televised interviews. He sees the campaign as “an endurance sport.”
He added that when he left Finnish politics seven years ago, he thought it would be for good.
“The plan was to do something else with my life,” he said. “Russia’s attack on Ukraine changed my mind.”
FINLAND NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
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