The leader of Finland’s centre-left Social Democratic party (SDP), Antti Rinne, declared victory in the general election after almost complete results showed his party winning by a razor-thin margin with 17.7%.
"For the first time since 1999 we're the largest party in Finland… SDP is the prime minister party", Rinne said after more than 99.5% of votes were counted.
The nationalist, Eurosceptic Finns party (PS) was in 2nd place with 17.6%, according to nearly complete results published by the justice ministry.
If final results confirm the outcome, Rinne could become Finland’s first left-wing prime minister since 2003. But the process of putting together a coalition could be drawn out because of a fragmented parliament. The very close result will make negotiations to form the next coalition government particularly fraught.
Earlier results in the election, that comes amid mounting concern among voters over the future of the country’s expensive welfare system, had also given strong showings for the centre-right National Coalition party, chaired by the outgoing finance minister, Petteri Orpo and the Centre party, of the prime minister, Juha Sipilä.
A strong showing by the Finns party will complicate coalition talks, with most party leaders ruling out any cooperation with it.
On Sunday night Rinne said he "has questions" for the Finns Party and didn't rule out cooperating with them to form a majority.
"Some of the questions will be about values", Rinne told Finnish media. "The Social Democratic Party’s values are very important, it’s the glue that'll hold the government together."
Rinne’s party could also choose to form a coalition with the conservative National Coalition party (KoK), that came in 3rd place with 17%.
At stake in the election's the future shape of Finland’s welfare system, a pillar of the Nordic social model, that those on the left want to preserve through tax rises and the centre-right wants to cut because of rising costs.
The Finns party is anti-immigration and calls for limits on environmental policies, arguing the nation – that has 5.5 million inhabitants – has gone too far in addressing issues such as climate change at its own expense.
"Finland isn’t capable of saving the world", its leader, Jussi Halla-aho, said at one of the party’s news conferences. "We have already done our part."
With the European parliament election less than 2 months away, the Finnish ballot is also being watched in Brussels. A strong result for the Finns party could bolster a nationalist bloc threatening to shake up EU policymaking.