When Finland's voters go to the polls in the presidential run-off election this Sunday, it is quite possible they will elect the first woman chief executive in the country's 76-year history. Even more remarkable is that Defense Minister Elisabeth Rehn, 58, comes from a small political party whose support usually is limited to the Swedish-speaking minority of just six percent.
Her surprising strength over more strongly-based rivals underscores the deep disenchantment the nearly 5 million Finns feel toward conventional politicians. Recession is deep. And revelations since the collapse of the Soviet Union have amply demonstrated that while the Helsinki political establishment trumpeted the country's neutrality between the East and the West, Moscow exercised a far greater influence over Finland's choices than even the most cynical had dreamed.
In the past two years, all this has changed. Because of its proximity, Russia can be expected to be a major factor in Finland's long-range decision- making. But Moscow's current weakness easily enabled Finland to enter into an affiliation with the European Union. Also, the Helsinki government is pondering over NATO's invitation to join its broader umbrella, the Partnership for Peace.
Finns were starkly reminded of the opportunities -- and dangers -- of their present situation on the eve of the Jan. 16 balloting, when Russia sent a diplomatic inquiry about the formation of a number of fringe political groups. Some of those groups indeed got their inspiration in pre-World War II jingoistic ideology. But Moscow's note recalled earlier times in the past four decades when the Kremlin had tried to influence Finland's elections.
This time the tactic backfired. In a heavy vote, Finns rejected all the presidential candidates connected to the country's political past and chose Martti Ahtisaari, a Social Democrat, and Mrs. Rehn to face one another in the run-off.
Mr. Ahtisaari, 56, too, comes from an unconventional background. He has rarely even lived in Finland in the past two decades, having worked first as a diplomat and high United Nations official in Africa and later in efforts to mediate end to the bloodshed in former Yugoslavia. But internal disenchantment among Social Democrats ran so high he was able to win the party's nomination.
Polls give Mrs. Rehn a narrowing lead. Whichever candidate succeeds Mauno Koivisto, the new president is likely to strengthen Finland's economic and political ties to the rest of Europe. Finland has little choice. Its economy, once dominated by paper and pulp industries, is increasingly varied and depends heavily on export sales which can only be achieved in large and stable markets.