UPDATE 1-Pro-euro candidate wins first round of Finnish vote

Sun Jan 22, 2012 3:55pm EST

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By Ritsuko Ando and Eero Vassinen

HELSINKI Jan 22 (Reuters) - Pro-euro candidate Sauli Niinisto won the first round of Finland's presidential election on Sunday, signalling voters want to keep cooperating with the European Union despite their frustration over bailouts for debt-ridden member states.

The former finance minister got 37 percent of the vote. He faces a Feb. 5 run-off with another pro-euro candidate, Pekka Haavisto of the Greens Party, who got about 19 percent.

Anti-euro candidates Paavo Vayrynen and Timo Soini dropped out of the race after the final tally.

While the president has little executive power beyond military and diplomatic affairs, it is a high-profile post and the strength of the pro-euro vote will ease pressure on the government to take a hard line against Brussels.

A eurosceptic leader may have forced Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen to demand stricter conditions on European bailout plans in the months ahead.

"This has significance. This has an impact on political discussions, as Europe is going through difficult talks on crisis management," said University of Helsinki professor Tuomo Martikainen. He and other analysts said Niinisto will likely win the second-round.

EUROSCEPTICISM RETREATS

The presidential election comes 9 months after Soini's Finns Party made strong gains in a parliamentary election after a campaign that focused on criticising European bailout plans.

High taxes, combined with a lacklustre economic growth outlook, fuelled criticism that Finland was helping some countries get an easy ride out of debt, while voters faced austerity at home.

Yet Sunday's result showed most voters would rather be represented by a more internationalist leader.

Soini came in fourth place with 9 percent support. Analysts said his popularity may have been hit by racist comments by some party members as well as his own provocative style. Prospects of a Europe-wide recession are also making voters wary of choosing a president who does not support the government, they said.

Finland's government and the euro zone are expected to agree on Monday to new rules for a 500-billion-euro ($646-billion)bailout fund. Finland had been the sole objector to a proposed new majority voting system and a deal would remove an obstacle to the scheme's launch in July.

Niinisto, who has also worked for the European Investment Bank, reaffirmed his support for Finland's pro-Europe stance, saying: "The EU is an essential direction for us. We are European."

Both he and Katainen are members of the National Coalition party which represents conservative economic policy and liberal social values, although as president he is expected to renounce party affiliation.

Eija Saario, a voter in Helsinki, said she voted for Niinisto as: "I think he would best represent me out in the world."

Some voters said they were concerned last year's rise of the Finns Party, previously called the True Finns, had stirred feelings of xenophobia in a country where less than 5 percent of the population are immigrants.

"The political discussion has grown more conservative and xenophobic after the True Finns victory last year," said 29-year-old advertising manager Erik. He voted for Haavisto, the first openly gay presidential candidate.

Haavisto, voting with his partner in central Helsinki, said: "In one way I am a pioneer, but I think the Finns are very tolerant people and they accept people for who they are."

President Tarja Halonen was elected as the country's first woman president in 2000 and re-elected in 2006. She steps down having served 12 years, the maximum term in office.

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