Finland’s leftist Social Democrat party (SDP) leader Antti Rinne has declared victory in Sunday’s general election. But it was one of the closest wins he could possibly get.
“For the first time since 1999 we are the largest party in Finland … SDP is the prime minister party,” Rinne said.
The Social Democrats and the nationalist Finns Party were almost tied in first place in Sunday’s general election, with 17.7% and 17.5% of votes respectively, justice ministry data showed.
The co-ruling Centre Party of Prime Minister Juha Sipila and the centre-right National Coalition stood at 13.8% and 17.0%, respectively.
The Social Democratic Party had been leading in opinion polls ahead of the election, at around 19%. But the far-right Finns Party, led by hardline MEP Jussi Halla-aho, saw a surge in support in recent months during their anti-immigration dominated campaign, urging people to “Vote for some borders”.
Antti Rinne’s close victory will make negotiations to form a governing coalition particularly difficult, not least because the major parties have all expressed strong reservations about joining a government with the Finns Party, whose policies took a further lurch to the right after Halla-aho became leader in 2017.
The country will take the six-month rotating presidency of the EU from Romania on 1 July.
Finland has a rapidly ageing population and declining birth rate, and the question of how to fund the country’s generous welfare state in future has been a key election battleground.
As part of his anti-austerity manifesto, Social Democrat leader Rinne, a 56-year-old former trade union boss, has pledged to improve conditions for Finland’s elderly with a €100 monthly pension boost for retirees on low incomes.
Yet the Social Democrats admit that this promise, estimated to cost €700 million a year, may prove impossible to fulfil if economic conditions are not favourable.
Despite finally emerging in 2016 from the post-financial-crash downturn, many economic forecasts suggest Finland’s GDP growth will slow in the coming years.
Yet after four years of spending cuts under the current administration, there is little appetite among the public for further belt-tightening.
“People are saying enough is enough with some of the cuts,” political commentator Sini Korpinen told AFP.
“For example the cuts the government has made to education have been very much criticised because education is something that we in Finland very much treasure.”
Last month Prime Minister Sipila dissolved his cabinet after failing to steer through parliament a long-fought plan to reform the country’s health and social care system.
That means Finland went to the polls under a caretaker government, a move which was derided as a political stunt by Sipila’s opponents. His Centre Party currently languishes in fourth place in the polls, having recently been overtaken by the Finns Party.
Immigration also became a hot election topic, despite Finland being western Europe’s most homogenous country with a foreign-born population of just 6.6%.
In January, outrage over highly publicised reports of a string of alleged sexual assaults by foreign men led to a surge in support for the Finns Party, who have pledged to drastically cut immigration and tighten asylum rules.
In the wake of the alleged assaults, which are still under investigation, parties across the political spectrum swiftly vowed to crack down on migrants who commit crimes.
“The Finns Party has had an effect on the way that we speak about immigration,” political commentator Sini Korpinen said.
“Other parties are being very cautious about their stand on immigration issues because they fear their support will bleed to the Finns Party.”
The Finns Party party has also denounced the “climate hysteria” of Finland’s other major parties and says citizens should not have to pay for any more measures to combat climate change.
However, all main parties in Finland are staunchly pro-Europe and the election is likely to have little impact on the eurozone member’s stance in the EU.
Even the eurosceptic Finns Party does not advocate leaving the European Union altogether, though they do want to see some reform of the bloc.