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Finland's President Sauli Niinisto wins landslide re-election

© Jussi Nukari/Lehtikuva/AFP | Independent presidential candidate Sauli Niinisto is pictured during an election reception in Helsinki on January 28.

Finns on Sunday 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 in Helsinki, who secured over 62 percent 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 percent of the votes.

Conceding defeat, he told reporters in Helsinki: "I admit that Saulu 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, told AFP.

"The Finns are used to seeing the president as guarantor of national security and survival," Raunio added.

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

'Successful tactics'

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.

"One of the central goals of Finland's foreign and security policy is to avoid getting pulled into an armed conflict," Niinisto told Finnish defence forces in a speech earlier this month.

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.

'Changes in private life'

Born into a working-class family in the southwestern Finnish town of Salo in August 1948, Niinisto -- the youngest of four children -- became a lawyer before entering politics as a member of the conservative National Coalition Party.

An advocate of budgetary discipline, he helped pull Finland out of a deep recession in the 1990s and into the eurozone.

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.

News Agencies

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