Voters queue to sign in to cast ballots at a polling center during the Finnish general elections, in Helsinki, on April 2, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Helsinki: Finns cast ballots on Sunday in a closely contested parliamentary election that could cost left-wing Prime Minister Sanna Marin power amid voter concern over the future of generous public services at a time of economic downturn.

No party is seen as holding a decisive lead and the election is likely to be followed by lengthy coalition talks, although whichever party wins on Sunday will have the first attempt at forming a government.

Marin, 37, is seen by fans around the world as a millennial role model for progressive new leaders and remains very popular among many Finns, particularly young moderates, but she has antagonised some conservatives with lavish spending on pensions and education that they see as irresponsible.

Voting began at 9am and closes at 8pm. Partial results from early voting will be published shortly afterwards.

Opinion polls show Marin’s Social Democrats, the biggest party in the outgoing coalition government, in a dead heat with the rightist National Coalition Party and the nationalist Finns Party, with all three seen winning some 18.7-19.8% of ballots and so reliant on other smaller parties to form a government.

“The right wing offers an alternative that makes life miserable for all of us, cuts services, cuts livelihoods for the poorest,” Marin told supporters on Saturday. “We have an opportunity to choose a better alternative.” The National Coalition has led in polls for almost two years although its lead has melted away in recent months. It has promised to curb spending and stop the rise of public debt, which has reached just over 70% of GDP since Marin took office in 2019.

People work as the counting of the advance votes of the Finnish parliamentary elections continues at the Kallio administrative building in Helsinki, Finland, April 2, 2023. Image Credit: via REUTERS

The grouping accuses Marin of eroding Finland’s economic resilience at a time when Europe’s energy crisis, driven by Russia’s war in Ukraine, has hit the country hard and the cost of living has increased.

The Finns Party, too, calls for austerity but its main goal is to reduce what its leader Riikka Purra has called “harmful” immigration from developing countries outside the European Union.

“To me the biggest issues are public health care. I think we need a strong public health care and then social justice,” one voter, psychologist Tuulikki Toropainen, 32, told Reuters on Saturday.

Nato membership

The next government will see the early days of Finland’s membership of NATO. Most notable of Marin’s foreign policy actions since she took office in 2019 has been her push, along with President Sauli Niinisto, for the country to make a watershed policy U-turn by seeking membership of the Western defence alliance in the wake of security concerns after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

That process is now almost complete, with Helsinki expected to join within days.

Some 1.7 million people or 40.5% of eligible voters already cast their ballot during the week-long early voting period that ended on Tuesday, Justice Ministry data showed.

Marin’s Social Democrats believe economic growth will help rein in the rise in public debt and that if the coffers need balancing, prefer to contemplate raising taxes over spending cuts.

However, that growth is not imminent. The economy in Finland, a country of 5.5 million, survived the pandemic better than those of most European countries, but growth slowed to 1.9% last year and the country is expected to tip into a mild recession this year, while inflation peaked at 9.1% in December.