Finnish Social Democrats and nationalist Finns Party nearly tied in election

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HELSINKI (Reuters) – Finland’s leftist Social Democrats and the nationalist Finns Party appeared tied to win Sunday’s general election, with nearly all votes counted, reflecting a mounting sense of insecurity in the Nordic nation over immigration and welfare.

Tipped to win, the opposition Social Democrats scored 17.7 percent, while their eurosceptic Finns Party rivals were at 17.5 percent, according to nearly complete results published by the justice ministry.

With 99.5 percent of votes counted, the co-ruling Centre Party of Prime Minister Juha Sipila and the center-right National Coalition stood at 13.8 percent and 17.0 percent, respectively.

With a fragmented parliament and deep divisions within the mainstream parties over how to tackle rising costs of expensive public services, coalition talks following the vote could be protracted.

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.

“For the first time since 1999 we are the largest party in Finland … SDP is the prime minister’s party,” Rinne told supporters and party members celebrating in central Helsinki.

With the European Parliament election less than two months away, the Finnish ballot is being watched in Brussels.

Underscoring a growing confidence among far-right politicians in Europe, anti-immigration parties, including the Finns, have announced plans to join forces after the May 26 EU election in a move that could give them a major say in how the continent is run.

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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 center-right wants to see streamlined because of rising costs.

Just as the Social Democrats are benefiting from a growing sense of insecurity among Finland’s older and poorer voters, the Finns argue that the nation has gone too far in addressing issues such as climate change and migration at its own expense. The Finns also want a revamp of its immigration policies.

“Finland isn’t capable of saving the world,” Finns Party chairman Jussi Halla-aho, 47, said at a recent news conference. “We have already done our part,” he said.

Additional reporting by Attila Cser and Ilze Filks in Helsinki, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen and Niklas Pollard in Stockholm; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Angus MacSwan and Daniel Wallis

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