The two leading candidates represent the left and right-wings of Finnish politics, but the far-right candidate has made progress in recent polls.
Voting begins in Finland Sunday morning, with citizens able to cast their ballot for one of nine candidates aspiring to be the Nordic nation’s 13th president.
Advance voting started earlier this month, and the country’s election commission reports that more than 1.8 million people, or 44% of eligible voters, made their choice ahead of Sunday’s main vote.
The two leading contenders, Alex Stubb from the right-wing National Coalition Party and Green politician Pekka Haavisto, both have a wealth of foreign policy experience – an important qualification for the role which is largely ceremonial, but retains a constitutional lead on foreign affairs outside of the EU; with the office holder also commander-in-chief of the Finnish military.
Recent polls have put Stubb and Haavisto within a few percentage points of each other, and as close as 0.6% – and with neither candidate likely to get more than 50% in the first round, the top two will head to a second-round vote in February.
“There definitely is a sense of excitement,” said Haavisto, who was campaigning in the capital region ahead of polling day.
“We have been touring the country quite a bit and reception has been excited. Both petrol stations, cafés and clubs have been packed with audiences. The ordinary Finns are now on the move. A high turnout is expected. Something is cooking,” he told Euronews.
Finland’s EU Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen, the Social Democrat candidate, described the mood on the campaign trail as “extremely positive.”
“During the past two months, I have visited nearly 60 Finnish cities and met personally over 5000 Finns. This week, we have finally started to see some differences between candidates, and this has really electrified the election,” she told Euronews.
“Many voters have not decided yet, and they are keen to meet the candidates, ask questions and know based on which values Finland will be led next six years.”
Alex Stubb’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Accusations of ‘hybrid influence operation’ against far-right candidate
Despite a generally convivial campaign period – the candidates who declared early have appeared together at dozens of panel discussions, debates, and media appearances by this point – in recent days there have been allegations of bias and even a ‘hybrid influence operation’ circulating on social media.
Some Finns Party supporters allege there is a coordinated effort to downplay the popularity of their candidate, Jussi Halla-aho. This includes, they claim, public broadcaster Yle suppressing polling which would show he is gaining support.
“State broadcasters shouldn’t be trying to influence an election. Yle is a threat to democracy” wrote one social media user. “In Finland, a hybrid operation in election influence is underway, everyone who has spoken about this in the past has been branded as an extreme right-winger,” wrote another. “Why is Yle campaigning against presidential candidate [Jussi] Halla-aho”, asked one account. “Yle practices a kind of almost imperceptible influence on opinion,” said another.
Euronews found that many of the accounts making claims against Yle were prominent in sharing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim content, and amplifying messages from fringe extremist accounts.
“Yle does not campaign against or for anyone,” the public broadcaster’s CEO said earlier this month.
Dimitri Qvintus, a Social Democrat party official and former spokesperson for Sanna Marin says that accusations by the “Finns Party leadership that Yle was hiding polls and ‘influencing the election’,” should have been addressed swiftly by the government.
He raises the spectre of whether the far-right party’s leadership would try to sow doubt about the election result if their candidate doesn’t make it through to the second round.
“It would fit perfectly with the new Finns Party playbook,” he added.
Candidates condemn the allegations
Presidential candidates from some of Finland’s biggest political parties have been quick to condemn the allegations.
“I am afraid we are witnessing the international trend of right-wing populists questioning elections for their own gain arriving in Finland as well,” said Jutta Urpilainen.
“This is a free and fair presidential election, and any suggestions otherwise are extremely serious allegations which should be backed by concrete evidence. I would hope this is something all candidates can agree on,” she told Euronews.
“There haven’t been signs of outside interference despite concerns regarding that,” said Pekka Haavisto.
“We are campaigning in fair Finnish elections. I have not seen anything out of the ordinary in election interference, except a fake advertisement at a bus stop for me and Jussi Halla-aho,” he noted.
The fake advertising was made to look like a genuine campaign poster, but with false quotes attributed to the candidates.
Jussi Halla-aho’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.