HELSINKI, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Polls opened in Finland on Sunday for a presidential election in which incumbent Sauli Niinisto is seen as likely to secure re-election on the first round of voting.
Niinisto, 69, is credited with helping Finland maintain a delicate balancing act between its relations with neighbour Russia and its links with NATO. It is not a NATO member but developed closer ties with the alliance after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.
Final polls released on Thursday showed support of 58-63 percent for Niinisto, who is originally from the conservative National Coalition Party (NCP), but campaigns as an independent.
His closest challenger — Pekka Haavisto of the Greens of Finland — had the support of 13-14 percent of respondents, while six other candidates shared a combined backing of 24-28 percent.
If Niinisto gets half of the votes on Sunday, he would be the first candidate to win the presidency in the first round since the electoral system was changed to a direct popular vote in 1994.
“His gruff, down-to-earth manner and facts-based approach truly appeals to Finns,” said Juho Rahkonen, Research Manager at pollster Taloustutkimus.
The president is in charge of Finland’s foreign and defence policy together with the government, but otherwise the post has become largely ceremonial in the past few decades.
“I have tried my best so that there would be a dialogue between Russia and the West, NATO, European Union and even the United States,” Niinisto told Reuters on Saturday at a campaign event in city of Espoo, near capital Helsinki.
“Because, despite the fact we have very big problems, with Crimea and Ukraine, we have to have dialogue,” he added.
Early results will be announced after polling stations close at 1800 GMT. A majority of votes is expected to be counted within two hours.
A runoff election between the two leading candidates would take place on Feb. 11., if no candidate gets half of the votes. (Reporting by Tuomas Forsell; Editing by Keith Weir)