* Election on Jan. 22, with possible run-off
* Polls show conservative Niinisto in lead
* Eurosceptic leader Soini lagging despite party's surge
By Ritsuko Ando
HELSINKI, Jan 6 Finnish voters look
set to elect veteran conservative Sauli Niinisto as their next
president as anti-euro sentiment takes a backseat to economic
The former finance minister from the National Coalition
party, with around 40 percent support in polls, is clear
favourite for the Jan. 22 election.
After the highly eurosceptic Finns Party emerged from
obscurity to become the main opposition in April's general
election - on a campaign opposing EU bailouts - some expected
its leader Timo Soini to be a formidable presidential candidate.
But Soini is trailing with under 10 percent, according to
latest media surveys, putting him behind at least one other
presidential hopeful, Centre Party veteran Paavo Vayrynen.
If none of the eight candidates gets more than half the
votes a run-off between the top two follows two weeks later.
Voters may be reassured by Niinisto's experience, analysts
say, even though Finland's president has little executive power
beyond military and diplomatic affairs.
"Finns are worried about the current state of Europe, the
state of the euro, and you can feel that there is still a bit of
anger about bailouts. But people are also worried about their
future," said Juha Jokela, programme director for the Finnish
Institute for International Affairs, an independent think-tank.
Finland is struggling with high youth unemployment and
prospects of slow economic growth ahead as traditional
industries like paper decline.
Even flagship tech company Nokia has been losing
share to the likes of Apple and more nimble Asian
rivals, forcing it to cut thousands of jobs.
While the government's balance sheet is healthier than most
others in Europe, export dependency leaves Finland vulnerable to
a downturn elsewhere.
The Bank of Finland last month cut its 2012 GDP growth
forecast to 0.4 percent from 2.6 percent and warned of a
recession if Europe's leaders fail to control the debt crisis.
"The public doesn't care that the president is not about
economic policy," said Ville Pernaa at Turku Universiy's Centre
for Parliamentary Studies. "The debate is Europe, the economy."
Niinisto, 63, was finance minister in 1996-2001 and is
credited for ensuring the economy recovered and became more
integrated with the rest of Europe after the fall of the Soviet
Union devastated Finnish trade.
He was in office when Finland held the EU presidency in
1999, making him familiar with the workings of Brussels. Until
last year, he was speaker of Finland's parliament.
Analysts say his lead showed voters haven't become too
eurosceptic. Some said bailout fatigue may be giving way to
serious concerns such as how a rapidly ageing population can
maintain a welfare system without strong, export-led growth.
"If you look at support for the European Union, it's still
rather high in Finland," said Jokela.
NIINISTO SEEN RESPECTABLE, TRAGIC
Even critics of EU policy appear wary of Soini's provocative
style. A key role of Finland's presidency, currently held by
former trade union lawyer Tarja Halonen, is diplomacy.
Recent racial insults by some members of the Finns Party
have hurt Soini's reputation, and many voters in the capital
said they don't want Soini - much of whose support comes from
rural areas - to be the face of Finland.
"I'm not saying Soini is xenophobic, but... his supporters
are, and I resent that," said 52-year-old Keijo Ruotsalainen,
who teaches at university.
Alongside Soini and Vayrynen of the Centre Party, the Green
Party's Pekka Haavisto - the first openly gay presidential
candidate in Finland - and veteran Social Democrat Paavo
Lipponen also have a shot at finishing second.
Opinion poll results indicate a run-off. While the
second-placed candidate can surge in the next round, analysts
say it would be tough for Soini to beat Niinisto.
Niinisto is unlikely to be hostile to the government led by
his fellow party member Jyrki Katainen, although as president he
would abandon party affiliation.
He also has a history of overcoming adversity - election
losses, his first wife's death in a car crash, and surviving the
2004 tsunami in Thailand - that endear him to voters.
(Additional reporting by Eero Vassinen; Edited by Richard