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European Union

Finland re-elects popular president who survived 2004 Thailand tsunami by climbing tree

The father of two sons lost his first wife in a car accident in 1995 and narrowly survived the 2004 tsunami in Thailand by climbing a tree with his youngest child

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 12:38pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 8:42pm

Finns have re-elected their popular and cautious president Sauli Niinisto, who is credited with maintaining a balanced relationship with the nation’s powerful neighbour Russia at a time of simmering relations between Moscow and the West.

“I am surprised and touched by this big support,” Niinisto told reporters Sunday in Helsinki, who secured over 62 per cent of the vote, significantly ahead the seven other candidates, with all the ballots counted.

Finland’s most popular president in more than three decades, the 69-year-old politician avoided a need for a second-round of voting, a first since Finland introduced a two-round presidential election by popular vote in 1994.

Niinisto’s main rival Pekka Haavisto of the Green party won just 12 per cent of the votes.

Conceding defeat, he told reporters in Helsinki: “I admit that Sauli Niinisto clearly won, warm congratulations to him.”

Niinisto, who campaigned as an independent, has delicately shifted the EU member state closer to Nato without antagonising Russia, with whom the Nordic nation shares the longest border in the bloc.

During his first term, Niinisto diligently cultivated ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been at odds with the West, particularly since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

“Niinisto took an active role in meeting Russian leaders and other politicians … it shows that people appreciate this leadership,” Tapio Raunio, a political-science professor at the University of Tampere, said.

“The Finns are used to seeing the president as guarantor of national security and survival.”

The Finnish Justice Ministry said voter turnout was 66.7 per cent and that the votes would be verified by a second round of counting on January 30.

Using his responsibility for defence and foreign policy as head of state to foster a meticulous relationship with Putin, Niinisto played ice hockey with his Russian counterpart in 2012.

The two leaders also attended an opera together last year as part of Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence after the fall of the Tsarist Russian empire.

“Niinisto’s strategies and tactics have been rather successful, especially handling Putin,” said Juhana Aunesluoma, research director at the University of Helsinki Network for European studies.

Finland, a Russian Grand Duchy from 1809 to 1917, has forged increasingly close ties with the United States and Nato, of which it is not a member – unlike the Baltic states to the south.

Russia has repeatedly warned Sweden and Finland against joining Nato, an issue regularly debated in the two Nordic countries, perceiving it as a provocation or even a justification for war.

Russian military activity in the region has increased in recent years, including several violations of Finnish airspace and warplanes allegedly flying with switched-off transponders – devices that allow radars to identify aircraft.

The father of two sons lost his first wife in a car accident in 1995 and narrowly survived the 2004 tsunami in Thailand by climbing a tree with his youngest child.

He married his second wife, the Finnish poet Jenni Haukio – 29 years his junior – in 2009. The couple announced in October they were expecting a child in February, hitting a soft spot among voters.

“The changes in my private life will not change how I handle my tasks as a president,” Niinisto told reporters on Sunday.