Results of advance voting in Finnish elections show the opposition Centre Party strongly in the lead. The party has also been clearly ahead in pre-elections surveys.
The results released on Sunday evening shortly after polling stations closed were based on advance voting, by which more than one-third of the Finnish electorate cast their ballots.
If the victory of the Centre Party is confirmed, it would mean that its leader, 53-year-old IT millionaire Juha Sipila (pictured above), would replace current conservative premier Alexander Stubb, who has headed a four-party left-right coalition since 2011.
The results showed the Centre Party with 23.2 percent of the vote, up 7.4 points compared with the elections in 2011.
Stubb's conservative National Coalition Party was in second place with 17.9 percent, down 2.4 percent on 2011, closely followed by current coalition partner, the Social Democrats, on 17.7 percent. The nationalist Finns Party under Timo Soini, which opposes EU-led bailouts and wants Greece out of the eurozone, was fourth on 15.8 percent.
Long coalition talks expected
If Sipila is elected, his first task would then be to choose his coalition partners, a process that is likely to take several weeks.
He has said he would be open to including the Euroskeptic Finns Party in a coalition.
Campaigning for the election was dominated by economic issues such as unemployment, benefit cuts and the rising national debt, with many Finns dissatisfied at Stubb's failure to pull the eurozone country out of a three-year economic slump.
Finland has seen its two economic mainstays - the forestry sector and the technology industry - shrink dramatically, while unemployment stands at 9.2 percent - the highest level since 2003.
The decline of one-time cellpone giant Nokia has been a major factor in Finland's economic woes, along with reduced trade with its neighbor, Russia, which is struggling under sanctions imposed by the European Union and the USA over the Ukraine crisis.
tj/kms dpa, AFP, Reuters)