The head of Finland's Social Democratic Party Antti Rinne votes in the country's general election

Helsinki (AFP) - Finns voted on Sunday in a general election where anti-austerity sentiment looked set to propel the opposition Social Democratic Party back to the head of government for the first time in 16 years.

The left-wing party leads Finland’s two main opinion polls with about 19 percent of the vote, having campaigned against the steep cost-cutting of Centre Party Prime Minister Juha Sipila and his Finance Minister Petteri Orpo – leader of the conservative National Coalition Party.

But the far-right Finns Party, led by hardline MEP Jussi Halla-aho, has seen a surge in support in recent months during an anti-immigration dominated campaign, urging people to “Vote for some borders”.

Polls showed 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.

The count of the record 1.5 million advance votes, over a third of the electorate, will be revealed at 8:00 pm (1700 GMT), with an official forecast based on most votes counted due around two hours later.

The heated debate during the campaign – over welfare, immigration and climate change – led some analysts to predict that turnout would be high. One predicted the high advance turnout and tight poll margins would make this “the liveliest election of the 2000s”.

Forecasts suggest no party is likely to draw more than 20 percent of the vote, meaning the result could be historically close and making negotiations to build a government coalition particularly tricky.

On Sunday, queues were reported at some polling stations in the capital.

The current government’s cuts to Finland’s prized education system, and a tightening of unemployment benefit criteria, provoked loud and widespread public opposition.

Petteri Orpo, leader of the conservative National Coalition Party and co-architect of the government’s savings programme, has denounced the Social Democratic Party’s anti-austerity plans as “irresponsible”.

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

- Populist surge -

People vote in the parliamentary elections, on April 14, 2019 at the city hall's polling station in Mantsala, Finland.Finns began voting in a general election where the centre-right government is expected to be overturned amid widespread opposition to its spending cuts, and the far-right is predicted to make large gains.

Opinion polls suggest the Social Democrats’ lead has narrowed in recent weeks to as little as two points, ahead of the National Coalition and Finns Party which are battling it out for second place.

Some have blamed the shrinking lead on the inability of party leader Antti Rinne, a 56-year-old former trade union boss, to attract large numbers of new, younger voters.

The growing Finns Party ratings, on the other hand, appear to be driven by new supporters who have not voted in the past.

The anti-immigration Finns Party also decries the “climate hysteria” of other parties seeking action against global warming.

Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila of the Centre Party has presided over four years of austerity

At one of its rallies on the eve of the vote in Myyrmaki, a disadvantaged suburb of the capital, a crowd of people, young and old, clamoured around party leader Jussi Halla-aho, asking for autographs and congratulating him on the campaign.

“You will be the next prime minister,” one woman assured him.

Halla-aho has sought to dispel accusations that he hopes to keep his party in opposition after the election, so as to avoid facing the tough decisions of being in power.

The Finns Party’s previous experience of being in government, when they became the second largest party in the 2015 election, led to the group splitting acrimoniously after its popularity spiralled following unpopular compromises on immigration and EU bailouts.

The hardline faction, led by Jussi Halla-aho, went into opposition in 2017, and the party took a further lurch to the right.

The other major parties have all expressed strong reservations about joining a government with the Finns Party, although few of them have ruled it out entirely.

- Ageing population pressure -

Finland has a rapidly ageing population and declining birth rate, and the question of how to keep funding the country’s generous welfare state has been a key election battleground.

Yet the Social Democratic Party may face tough economic conditions in which to implement its anti-austerity promises: many economic forecasts suggest Finland’s GDP growth will slow in the coming years.

Jussi Halla-aho's far-right Finns Party has urged people to "vote for some borders"

Immigration became a hot election topic following outrage in January over highly publicised reports of an alleged string of sexual assaults by immigrant men. The incidents boosted support for the Finns Party’s anti-immigration agenda.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, who as head of state is not involved in government affairs except foreign policy, tweeted on Saturday that he has a “major timing problem” since the vote results clash with a USA-Finland women’s ice hockey World Championship final match.