Finland elections kick off with austerity, climate in focus

Climate change, social care are top issues in Finnish vote

The Social Democrats secured 40 seats in Finland's 200-member parliament based on a preliminary tally of more than 94 percent of ballots.

Finland's leftist Social Democrat party (SDP) leader Antti Rinne has declared victory in Sunday's general election.

Polls show the Finns Party ending up in second or third place, meaning it could hold significant influence in the talks to form the next government, which in Finland is typically a coalition of three or four parties.

But Social Democrat leader Antti Rinne, 56, a former union boss, was expected to have the first shot at forming a government, with most party leaders having ruled out cooperation with the Finns. The Centre Party of outgoing Prime Minister Juha Sipila scored third, with 15.4 percent. He may approach the National Coalition party, which won 38 seats. "Finland isn't capable of saving the world", Jussi Halla-aho said at one of the party's news conferences. The Finns Party focused its campaign on immigration, urging people to "Vote for some borders", and on climate change, where it denounced the "climate hysteria" of other parties and pledged that citizens should not have to pay for efforts to contain global warming.

The Social Democratic Party had been leading in opinion polls ahead of the election, at around 19%.

Meanwhile the Finns Party, which won 39 seats, had focused nearly entirely on an anti-immigration agenda under the leadership of hardline MEP Jussi Halla-aho, who also decried the "climate hysteria" of the other parties.

This could make negotiations to form a governing coalition particularly hard, not least because the major parties have all expressed strong reservations about joining a government with the Finns Party, whose policies took a lurch to the right after Halla-aho became leader in 2017.

"Some of the questions will be about values", Rinne told Finnish media. "After those who have voted in advance, we have about 1,700 people who have a right to vote today (in this district)", election official Vesa Hintsanen said at the school Sunday.

One of the more likely outcomes appears to be a six-seat majority government formed by the Social Democrats, National Coalition, Green League and Swedish People's Party.

However, in a tacit acknowledgement that the public mood was against further belt-tightening, Orpo has insisted that the economy is now strong enough to allow for some more generous public spending.

As required by Finnish law, election officials asked the first voter to confirm the ballot box was empty before it was locked and voting could begin.

At stake in Finland is the future shape of the country's welfare system, a pillar of the Nordic social model, which the leftists want to preserve through tax hikes and the centre-right wants to see streamlined because of rising costs.

Rinne and Petteri Orpo, the chairperson of the National Coalition, both told YLE last week that they would turn down the opportunity to enter into a ruling coalition with the Finns Party.

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