Finnish Social Democrat leader Rinne declares victory in election

The Finns Party focused its campaign on immigration, urging people to "Vote for some borders", and on climate change, where it denounced the "climate hysteria" of other parties and pledged that citizens should not have to pay for efforts to contain global warming.

However, cuts to Finland´s prized education system, and a tightening of unemployment benefit criteria, provoked loud and widespread public opposition.

They will head a government for the first time in 16 years, though it has been a junior coalition member since then.

"There have been a lot of cuts and some, like education, in areas they promised they wouldn´t cut".

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

Voter turnout of 72 percent was higher than the 70.1 percent who voted in 2015. A record 1.5 million Finns - over a third of the electorate - had already cast their vote in advance of polling day.

Around lunchtime the leaders of the main parties were seen casting their ballots in their constituencies: Halla-aho in Helsinki, Rinne in the town of Mantsala in the south, and Petteri Orpo in the southwest city of Turku.

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

Opinion polls had suggested the Social Democrats' lead was narrowing towards the end of their campaign, with some blaming Rinne's inability 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.

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 European Union election in a move that could give them a major say in how the continent is run.

The chairman of the Finns Party and parliamentary candidate Jussi Halla-aho votes in the parliamentary elections, in Helsinki, Finland Sunday, April 14, 2019.

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

This could make the negotiations to build a government coalition particularly tricky.

The major parties have all expressed strong reservations about joining a government with the Finns Party, whose policies lurched to the right after Halla-aho became leader in 2017.

Although the two parties have repeatedly clashed over the conservatives' austerity policies during the last four years, political commentator Sini Korpinen told AFP the pair would more than likely choose to collaborate in order to keep the Finns Party in opposition.

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. Polling stations close at 8:00 pm (1700 GMT), with a provisional vote count expected before midnight.