(Helsinki) Prime Minister Sanna Marin is playing a tough re-election on Sunday in Finland’s parliamentary elections, where the 37-year-old leader could be ousted by the right or even anti-immigration nationalists.

A tight three-way battle for prime minister pits Social Democrat leader, centre-right National Coalition number one Petteri Orpo against far-right Finns party leader Riikka Purra , which aims for an unprecedented victory and a record score for these legislative elections.

The party’s candidate who arrives first traditionally inherits the position in Finland, provided that they can muster a majority in Parliament.

The trio is in a pocket handkerchief for these elections which coincide with the official entry of Finland into NATO, expected in the coming days.

Polling stations opened Sunday morning in the Nordic country of 5.5 million people, where 40% of voters have already voted early in a highly suspenseful ballot.

Popular abroad and in Finland, Sanna Marin has established herself as a “rock star prime minister”, but she is more divisive at home, where she faces criticism over the economic situation and inflation.

“Everyone has a chance to win and of course we want to win to continue our work for a more sustainable future,” Marin said on the sidelines of her latest rally on Saturday, promising to “look after ordinary Finns”. .

According to the latest poll on Thursday, the National Coalition has 19.8% of the voting intentions, ahead of the party of the Finns (19.5%) then the Social Democrats (18.7%).

“We had a great campaign […] and we are first in the polls, so I am optimistic,” Petteri Orpo, 53, who campaigned on the economy and public finances, said on Saturday.

After the breakthrough of the nationalists in neighboring Sweden and the victory of the extreme right in Italy last year, will Finland become the last country of the national-populist wave in Europe?

Established for more than 20 years in Finnish political life, the party of the Finns has never come out on top so far.

“What seems clear is that we are going to have a very good result,” Ms. Purra, its leader for two years, told AFP on Sunday after putting her ballot in the ballot box and before a visit to the sauna. , a Finnish institution.

For Juho Rahkonen, political scientist at E2 Research, the anti-immigration party and advocate of a long-term exit from the EU, a “Fixit”, has been able to capitalize more than others on the current inflationary wave.

Very offensive on social networks, it also tops the voting intentions of young people.

“I think the far-right nationalist party will probably win…unfortunately, so I’m doing my duty to stop them,” 31-year-old voter Markus Hällsten told AFP.

“She made us proud, before people laughed at us, we were an old school party,” said Mo Shimer, a 26-year-old SDP activist.

But many do not carry it in their hearts, analysts point out.

“While exceptionally popular, it also arouses opposition and the political divide has deepened,” notes Juho Rahkonen.

The economy is the main angle of attack for the opposition, which denounces in particular the increase in public debt.

“I felt I had to come and vote because ‘rock star’ Marin’s time is running out, she hasn’t done anything good,” says Antti Piispanen, a 30-year-old salesman.

The Prime Minister’s five-party government coalition has been struggling for several months. His Center ally has already warned that he would refuse to renew this coalition.

The release of the first partial results, based on advance voting, is expected at 8 p.m. (1 p.m. EST) after the polls close.

The formation of a government traditionally takes several weeks or even months. Ms. Marin should therefore at least take over the interim next week when Finland officially joins NATO.

Long Swedish – still an official language with Finnish and the first language of around 5% of Finns – Finland was ceded to Russia in 1809.

The “grand duchy” took advantage of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 to proclaim its independence, at the cost of a civil war between “reds” and “whites”.

Invaded by the USSR in 1939 after the German-Soviet pact, Finland resisted valiantly during the three months of the Winter War. But after the resumption of the conflict in 1941, she ended the war on the side of the vanquished.

At the end of a “friendship” treaty signed in 1948 under pressure from Moscow, Helsinki agreed to stay out of Western military cooperation, in a form of forced neutrality called “Finlandization”.

At the end of the Cold War, Finland joined the European Union and took root in the West, but it was not until the war in Ukraine that it decided to join NATO.

Of the eight main parties, seven are led by women. The country is in the world leader for gender equality.

When Sanna Marin came to power in 2019, becoming the third female prime minister, photos of her alliance of five parties, all led by women, went viral.

The Finnish Parliament was the first in the world to have women MPs, when the country was still Russian.

Today, they represent 47% of the outgoing Parliament.

With 7% of its population born abroad according to the OECD, Finland is one of the least cosmopolitan countries in Europe.

But the acceleration of arrivals favored the emergence of the Party of Finns, whose line hardened after a split in 2017.

Referring to the gang war in neighboring Sweden, the party wants to strengthen immigration policy by taking inspiration from another Nordic neighbor, Denmark, in order to “save Finland” from the “Swedish way”.

The National Coalition sees immigration as a response to an aging population, while Sanna Marin rejects any collaboration with an “openly racist” Party of Finns.

A red-blue alliance would be complicated by economic disagreements, with the right having campaigned against the government’s supposed fiscal irresponsibility.

Known for being a low-key people, Finns were crowned the world’s happiest people in March for the sixth consecutive year, a ranking sponsored by the UN.

With its thousands of lakes and ubiquitous forests, the Nordic country of 5.5 million inhabitants and more than 330,000 square kilometers has a successful social model, high trust in authorities and limited inequalities.

Bound by frost for nearly half the year, Finns can boast another top spot: the number of saunas, which peaks at three million – more than cars.

The Happiness Report, however, came as a surprise at Finland’s first title in 2018: Many locals describe themselves as taciturn and melancholy, confidently watching the outpourings of joy with suspicion.