HELSINKI — Finns trudged through thick snow and braved blizzards to vote for a new president on Sunday as polls indicated declining support for the front-runner, making a second round next month increasingly likely.
Ex-finance minister Sauli Niinisto holds a clear lead in a field of eight candidates but surveys indicate he will not capture the required majority to win the first round.
The vote comes as the Nordic country braces for cutbacks amid a European financial crisis that threatens the economy and the top credit rating of the eurozone member.
Finland's 12th president since independence from Russia in 1917 will replace Tarja Halonen, the country's hugely popular first female head of state who has served two six-year terms.
The president has a largely ceremonial role and is not involved in daily politics, but is considered an important shaper of public opinion in the nation of 5.3 million on the fringes of northeastern Europe.
The 63-year-old Niinisto, considered debonair in a country not known for social graces, said that if elected he would have a duty to ensure the government's expected belt-tightening measures will be evenly spread among the population.
The president has a largely ceremonial role and is not involved in daily politics, but is considered an important shaper of public opinion in the small Nordic country.
"We need a president just as some people need kings and queens. Somebody has to be the figurehead," said Laila Halme, a retired graphic artist, as she walked her dog through thick snow to vote in a Helsinki suburb.
Among those challenging Niinisto is Timo Soini, the stocky, plain-talking populist leader who has become the face of Finland's growing doubts about the euro. His Finns party made stunning gains to win 19 percent of votes in parliamentary elections last year, sending shockwaves through Europe with demands that relatively well-off Finland stop supporting bailouts for debt-stricken eurozone members.
Soini and centrist former foreign minister Paavo Vayrynen, who also opposes Finland's membership in the 17-nation eurozone, had been tying for second place, but a recent poll indicates that Pekka Haavisto, a pro-EU Greens candidate has overtaken them.
Halme said she will vote for Haavisto, the 53-year-old former environment minister, who has held several positions in EU and U.N. operations helping to solve crises in Sudan, Darfur and the Middle East.
"He's extremely cultured and civilized. We need a member of a new, educated generation who hasn't been corrupted by politics," she said.
Pirjo Halinen, a 30-year-old nurse, said her vote will go Niinisto, a former vice president in the European Investment Bank who was Finland's finance minister when it joined the euro in 2002, but said she was glad Haavisto might be in a runoff against him on Feb. 5.
"Now, we have two internationally minded candidates in the lead. That sends a message to Europe and the world," Halinen said, echoing the sentiments of many in a nation acutely aware of its image.
An opinion poll published Thursday showed Niinisto still in the lead, but down eight points from a previous survey, to 29 percent support. Haavisto had 12 percent, while Vayrynen, who tied with Haavisto in previous surveys, was given 10 percent support.
Soini had fallen one point to 6 percent, in the survey published by national broadcaster YLE. The poll gave the four other candidates each 2-6 percent. Pollster Taloustutkimus interviewed 1,457 people between Jan. 10 and 18. It had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.