He helped get Finns into NATO, now he gets them dancing. Will DJ Pexi be president?

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By Anne Kauranen and Attila Cser

HELSINKI (Reuters) - As Finland's foreign minister for the past four years, Pekka Haavisto helped overturn decades of neutrality to bring Finns into NATO. Now, as 'DJ Pexi', he is spinning records to get them onto the dancefloor - and win an election to be president.

On Friday night in a trendy Helsinki neighbourhood, Haavisto drew some 200 students to a club. The 65-year-old centre-left Liberal Green frontrunner got the young crowd up on its feet with an unapologetically old school playlist, mostly of hits from his own generation, like the Beatles jaded political anthem "Revolution".

"Well, this is an opportunity for me, of course, to meet young people, and for some reason my DJ performance has become now quite popular, particularly among the students," Haavisto told Reuters. "It's a nice feeling when you see the audience waving and moving there according to your favourite music, which comes from the 60s or from the 70s."

Haavisto, who stepped down as foreign minister in June, is hoping to succeed Sauli Niinisto, a conservative stalwart in office for more than a decade, in an election on Jan 28.

Finland's president supervises foreign and security policy, including the new role of representing the country at meetings of NATO, the Western military alliance it joined in April in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Haavisto, who was runner-up to Niinisto in 2018 and 2012, is now the frontrunner in most polls, although one poll last month had him trailing conservative former prime minister Alexander Stubb.

Though Finland's left was historically more wary of NATO than the conservatives, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has largely swept such scepticism aside. Haavisto said that as president "my Finland would be an active member of NATO".

To win, he needs young voters. Those at Friday's dance party seemed happy.

"I don't think there's a lot of negative to say about him. I think everybody has only positive things to say," said one of the organisers, who gave his name as Henry.

If elected, Haavisto would become Finland's first openly gay president. His Ecuadorian partner Antonio Flores, 45, whom he met at a Colombian disco in the 1990s when travelling in South America, is no fan of his old fashioned playlist.

"I couldn't play this music at home. There is only one song that he accepts, it's a Latin merengue music song, but otherwise he hates this music," Haavisto said.

(Reporting by Anne Kauranen and Attila Cser)