Finns choose Ahtisaari as their new president

HELSINKI (Reuter) - The veteran diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, of the opposition Social Democratic Party, won Finland's presidential election yesterday. Mr Ahtisaari, 56, will take office on 1 March when President Mauno Koivisto steps down after two six-year terms.

The Defence Minister, Elisabeth Rehn, of the Swedish People's Party, conceded defeat in the country's first presidential election by direct popular vote. 'I admit that there is a winner whose name is Martti Ahtisaari,' Ms Rehn said.

With 99 per cent of the ballot papers counted, Mr Ahtisaari had 53.8 per cent of the votes against 46.2 per cent for Ms Rehn, Finnish television reported.

Ms Rehn, 58, hugged and congratulated Mr Ahtisaari in front of the television cameras.

'I hope that those who voted for Elisabeth Rehn will give me their support in this difficult task,' Mr Ahtisaari said. 'The incoming president will have difficult tasks both in economic and foreign policy. It is important that the nation is not split,' he added. 'I will try to see to it that I am perceived as a president for the whole country.'

Mr Ahtisaari, a former UN under-secretary general, is strongly in favour of Finland's plans to join the European Union next year. He also stresses the importance of good relations with neighbouring Russia, saying it must not be isolated in the new Europe.

Mr Ahtisaari and Ms Rehn led nine other candidates in the election's first round on 16 January, but both failed to win the 50 per cent needed to avoid a second and decisive round.

The main responsibility of the Finnish president is for foreign policy, but the election campaign has largely focused on the country's economic difficulties.

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