Leftist party tipped to win Finland elections

If this happens, the country will have its first left-wing leader in 20 years

Social Democrats' leader Antti Rinne.

Finland may usher in its first leftist prime minister in two decades in the parliamentary elections today, as voters worry over the future of the country's generous welfare system and the costs of caring for a rapidly ageing population, polls ahead of the vote show. Such success of the Finland's Social Democrats would mark a departure not only for the country but also elsewhere in the region, where leftist parties have struggled in recent years, yielding some of their hold on the working class vote as anti-immigration nationalists of various stripes emerge.

Leftists' ability to govern may be hampered, however, by a surge in support for the Finns Party, a nationalist group riding a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the Nordics. According to the survey commissioned by public broadcaster Yle the Social Democrats could win the top spot with 19% of the vote, giving their leader, Antti Rinne, the first shot at forming a government. But the Finns are running close second with 16.3% support, after scoring rapid gains since the start of this year when a series of cases of sexual abuse of minors by foreign men emerged.

Such strong result for the Finns Party is expected to bolster a nationalist bloc threatening to shake up EU policy-making.  Thus, with the EU Parliament election less than two months away, the Finnish ballot is being closely watched in Brussels.

The parliamentary elections in the country follow Prime Minister Juha Sipila's government resignation last month over its failure to achieve a key policy goal on social welfare and healthcare reform. Concerned about Finland's expensive welfare system in the face of an ageing population, Sipila and his Centre Party made tackling the nation's debt one of his government's main aims, introducing planning reforms he hoped would save up to €3bn over a decade. But while the introduction of austerity measures - such as benefits cuts and pension freezes - resulted in Finland reducing its government debt for the first time in a decade last year, the reforms proved politically controversial. Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party, a centre-left party with strong links to Finland's trade unions, saw its popularity grow. Especially since the party's leader, Antti Rinne described Sipila's policies as unfair, and said taxes needed to be raised to combat inequality.

"We need to spread our tax base and we need to strengthen it," Rinne recently told Reuters news agency, adding that the move would mark a "big policy change" for Finland.

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