Finland's right-wing party claims big win, PM Marin concedes defeat in elections
Finland elections: With 93.4% of the votes counted, the party looked set to get the most seats in parliament, 48 out of 200 in total.
Finland's centre-right leader claimed victory in Sunday's tight general election that saw the far-right post a record score to come in second, as Prime Minister Sanna Marin's Social Democrats finished third.
"This was a great victory," the 53-year-old head of the conservative National Coalition Party, Petteri Orpo, told his cheering supporters.
"On the basis of this election result ... we will start negotiating a government in Finland," he said.
Orpo could choose to build a government either with the far-right Finns Party or the Social Democrats, though he is at odds with both on various issues.
With 99 percent of votes counted, the centre-right was credited with 48 of the 200 seats in parliament, the far-right with 46 and the Social Democrats with 43.
In terms of votes, the result was even closer with the centre-right winning 20.6 percent, the far-right 20.1 percent and the Social Democrats 19.9 percent.
The biggest party in parliament traditionally gets the first chance to build a government, and since the 1990s that party has always claimed the prime minister's office.
Orpo, whose comfortable lead in the polls shrank in the final stages of the campaign, has made the economy his top priority.
Finland's debt-to-GDP ratio has risen from 64 percent in 2019 to 73 percent, which his National Coalition wants to address by cutting spending by six billion euros ($6.5 billion).
Meanwhile, amid cheers of "Finland! Finland!", the 45-year-old head of the anti-immigration Finns Party, Riikka Purra, thanked her supporters for the party's "best election result ever".
The party, which first served in government in 2015, has seen its support surge since last summer with the cost of living crisis following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Purra even managed to secure the highest number of direct votes in the election, with her 38,000 beating out the 35,000 cast for Marin, whom polls have ranked as Finland's most popular prime minister this century.
The eurosceptic Finns Party, which appeals overwhelmingly to male voters, wants a hard line on immigration.
Purra alleges that recent arrivals are behind a rise in street gangs and has pointed to neighbouring Sweden as a cautionary tale.
The Finns Party sees "Fixit" -- an exit from the European Union -- as a long-term goal and wants to postpone Finland's target of carbon neutrality for 2035.
Tough talks ahead
Marin, who became the world's youngest prime minister in 2019 at the age of 34, has struggled to convert her overwhelming personal popularity into support for her SDP.
"Congratulations to the National Coalition Party, congratulations to the Finns Party. Democracy has spoken," she said as she acknowledged defeat.
Negotiations to build a government are expected to be thorny and could last several weeks.
Orpo has said he will keep his options open, and could cooperate either with the left or the far-right, whom Marin has qualified as "openly racist".
Orpo's National Coalition is at odds with Marin's SDP on budget austerity, and clashes with the Finns Party on immigration, the EU and climate policy.
'Rock star's days are over'
Making headlines internationally for her hard line against Finland's eastern neighbour Russia, Marin has been a popular speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos in recent years and has been featured on the cover of Time Magazine and in Vogue.
Yet while some view her as a strong leader who deftly navigated the Covid-19 pandemic and the NATO membership process, others see the rising public debt on her watch and backlash over video clips of her partying as signs of inexperience.
"I liked Marin... but I don't personally believe that her ideas about economic policy are something she and her government can actually achieve," 29-year-old Kasper Kylmala told AFP after casting his ballot.
Antti Piispanen, a 30 year-old salesman, put it more bluntly: "The 'rock star' Marin's time is over, she did nothing good."