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Finland's leftist president wins reelection in runoff

HELSINKI -- Finland's leftist president won another six-year term yesterday, defeating a conservative challenger in an election runoff.

President Tarja Halonen and her opponent, Sauli Niinisto, had presented similar visions for neutral Finland's foreign policy, the president's primary domain.

Halonen, a former Social Democrat, received nearly 52 percent to Niinisto's 48 percent, with all the votes counted. Social Democratic candidates have held the president's post since 1982, although the head of state must give up party affiliation when taking office.

''It's back to work on Monday," said Halonen, 62.

She complimented Niinisto on his unexpectedly strong challenge.

''The man has lost," Niinisto said, kissing her hand.

Both advocate close ties with NATO, but Niinisto was considered to be more open to membership in the Western alliance, a sensitive issue in a country that shares a 800-mile border with Russia, a former enemy.

The Finnish head of state is not involved in day-to-day politics, and there is wide agreement on the other main issues, including satisfaction with Finland's membership in the European Union since 1995, fostering good ties with Russia, and close cooperation with NATO.

Halonen had been widely expected to clinch a second six-year term, but her reelection seemed less certain as Niinisto, 57, a former finance minister, rallied in the days leading up to the runoff. Turnout was 77 percent.

Since taking office in 2000, Halonen has had high approval ratings in the country.

She also got an unusual endorsement from US talk-show host Conan O'Brien, a fellow redhead who promoted her reelection bid as part of a running joke about their supposed physical similarities. In one show, O'Brien presented a mock ad for Halonen in which he and two Finns discussed the election while ice fishing.

In the first round, Halonen, a former trade union lawyer, won 46 percent of votes, and Niinisto came second with 24 percent in a field of eight candidates. The runoff was needed because neither obtained the necessary majority.

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