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Finnish president has strong poll lead ahead of January elections

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finnish President Sauli Niinisto is set to be elected for a second six-year term in January elections by a wide margin, a poll commissioned by public broadcaster YLE showed on Thursday.

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Known for cultivating good relations with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, 69-year-old Niinisto -- an independent candidate who previously represented the conservative National Coalition Party -- had the support of 76 percent in the poll.

Fourteen percent of respondents backed lawmaker Pekka Haavisto from the Greens of Finland while five others had in total around 10 percent.

The president is in charge of Finland’s foreign and defense policy together with the government, but otherwise the post has become largely ceremonial in the past few decades.

Following the Ukraine crisis and chilly East-West relations, Niinisto has taken an active role in maintaining relations with neighboring Russia by regular contacts with Putin.

Finland is an EU member but it has stayed out of the NATO military alliance under its tradition of avoiding confrontation with Russia. The two countries share a 833 mile (1,340 km) border and a difficult history.

“I don’t easily declare myself as an advisor... But my message to Moscow, Brussels, Washington and any other place is: you should have dialogue,” Niinisto told reporters last week.

The election will take place on January 28. If no candidate gets half of the votes, there will be a second round in February.

If Niinisto and Haavisto met in a second round, Niinisto would win 82 percent of that vote, the poll showed.

“The numbers are exceptional. Incumbent presidents always have an advantage, but we’ve never seen one’s popularity grow as the election gets closer,” said Johanna Vuorelma, political scientist at University of Helsinki.

“With the current tensions in the Baltic Sea region, it seems people look for a safe and familiar candidate, and don’t even want to consider alternatives.”

The poll by Taloustutkimus surveyed 1,470 Finns last week.

Reporting by Jussi Rosendahl and Tuomas Forsell