The Social Democratic Party, headed by Antti Rinne, leads both of Finland's main opinion polls at around 19 percent

Helsinki (AFP) - Finland voted Sunday in a general election in which the Social Democratic Party appeared set to topple the centre-right government after four years of spending cuts, with the far-right predicted to make large gains.

The left-wing social democrats lead Finland’s two main opinion polls with about 19 percent of the vote, having campaigned against the austerity policies 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 show the party ending up in second or third place, meaning it could play a significant role in the next government, which in Finland is typically a coalition of three or four parties.

As polling stations opened at 9:00 am (0600 GMT), Helsinki was typically quiet.

At the Normaalilyseo high school in the city centre, only a trio of three young women were there as polling opened.

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.

A record 1.5 million Finns, over a third of the electorate, had already cast their ballots during a week of advance voting earlier this month.

The opposition Social Democratic Party has promised to address widespread public concern that public spending was cut too harshly in recent years as the economy struggled to emerge from the recession that followed the 2008 financial crash.

Cutbacks to Finland’s prized education system drew particular criticism from MPs on all sides.

“People are saying enough is enough with some of the cuts,” political commentator Sini Korpinen told AFP.

- Populist surge -

Antti Rinne's Social Democratic Party is expected to topple the centre-right government

However, opinion polls suggest the social democrats’ lead has narrowed in recent weeks to as little as two points ahead of the National Coalition and the Finns Party, which are neck-and-neck in 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 Finns Party has run a vocal campaign calling for asylum-based immigration to be reduced to almost zero, and decrying 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 a Finns Party rally 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.

Forecasts suggest no party is likely to draw more than 20 percent of the vote, meaning the result could be historically close.

This could 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 lurch to the right after Halla-aho became leader in 2017.

- 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"

Last month, Sipila dissolved his cabinet after failing to steer through parliament a long-fought plan to reform the country’s health and social care system.

His Centre Party is placed behind the Finns Party in opinion polls.

Immigration became a hot election topic despite Finland being western Europe’s most homogenous country with a foreign-born population of just 6.6 percent.

In January, outrage over highly publicised reports of an alleged string of sexual assaults by immigrant men boosted support for the Finns Party’s anti-immigration agenda.

Polls close at 8:00 pm (1700 GMT) with all votes expected to be counted by midnight.