Finland’s former prime minister, Alexander Stubb, completed a surprise political comeback on Sunday by winning a closely fought runoff to become the Nordic state’s president after seven years in the political wilderness.
The result will have been closely watched in European capitals and beyond given Finland’s strategically important location along the EU and NATO’s eastern border with an increasingly aggressive Russia. The country’s president leads its foreign policy alongside the government, and serves as Finland’s commander-in-chief.
Stubb, a member of the mainstream center-right National Coalition Party (NCP), beat former Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto of the center-left Green Party in the runoff, 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent.
Stubb said before the election that Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine had convinced him to return to Finnish politics and to contribute to Europe’s efforts to face down the Kremlin.
But speaking to reporters after the vote he adopted a gentler tone, noting that while much had been said during the campaign about “war, defense and NATO,” his message was “one of peace.”
“We must remember that one of the president’s main tasks is to ensure Finland promotes peace, and I will do that as president,” Stubb said.
The new president succeeds popular outgoing incumbent Sauli Niinistö, also of the NCP, who has reached Finland’s limit of two six-year terms.
Niinistö was the face of Finland’s dramatic decision to join NATO last April in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. He was seen internationally as a quietly competent operator who steered his country through tricky accession negotiations with Turkey and Hungary in particular.
Stubb grew up on the western edge of Helsinki. His mother, a housewife, spoke Finnish, while his father, an ice hockey administrator, spoke Swedish — an official minority language in Finland.
After attending school in Finland and later the U.S., Belgium and the U.K., Stubb entered politics in 2004 as a member of the European Parliament. He hit the Finnish big time in 2008 when — to his own surprise — he was named foreign minister.
Praised by allies for his high-energy approach to politics, he was also criticized during his time in government for his occasionally hasty statements, and was forced to apologize after being accused of swearing at a meeting of the Nordic Council, a regional cooperation body.
During a difficult year as prime minister in 2014 he failed to reverse his NCP’s declining popularity, and lost a parliamentary election in 2015 amid an economic slump. After a subsequent spell as finance minister he quit Finnish politics in 2017, vowing never to return.
During the five-month presidential election campaign, observers say, Stubb earned the support of voters by demonstrating a calmer and more thoughtful demeanor during debates than had been his custom, and for being at pains to show respect for his rivals.
“However this election goes, it will be good for Finland,” he said in a debate with Haavisto earlier last week.
Stubb has said he intends to be a unifying force in Finnish society, something the country appears to need after a series of racism scandals involving government ministers and, more recently, strikes over work conditions and wages that paralyzed public services.
Stubb and Haavisto largely agreed on how to approach the key foreign policy challenges facing Finland, including the need to take a hard line against Russia, but observers judged Stubb to be slightly the more hawkish of the two toward the Kremlin.
Haavisto, for example, opposed the presence of nuclear weapons on Finnish territory while Stubb said it might be necessary under certain circumstances.
Stubb also appeared more open than Haavisto to allowing a Finnish military presence on the country’s strategically important Baltic Sea archipelago of Åland, which would reverse a policy in place since 1856.
Experts say Stubb will need to be on the alert for attempts by the Kremlin to pressure Finland ahead of his inauguration, including through airspace incursions or cyberattacks.
Moscow has been accused of orchestrating the arrival of waves of immigrants from the Middle East at Russia’s border with Finland over the winter; such tactics might also now resume.
“The authorities should be aware that there is a good chance that Russia is going to try and test Finland in some way,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
Stubb assumes the presidency March 1; on Sunday night he thanked voters for their confidence.
“This is the honor of my life,” he said.