HELSINKI - A millionaire former telecoms executive touted as a technocrat capable of rescuing Finland from economic slump won Sunday's parliamentary election, vote predictions showed, but he may need support of a Euro-sceptical populist party to form a coalition.
Forecasts by state broadcaster YLE based on 60 per cent of votes showed opposition Centre Party leader Juha Sipila, who has backing of the urban middle class and rural conservatives, beating pro-Europe and pro-NATO Prime Minister Alexander Stubb.
YLE forecast Sipila won 46 seats in the 200-member parliament, with Stubb's centre-right National Coalition with 37 seats and centre left Social Democrats with 37 seats. The euro sceptic and anti-immigration Finns Party was fourth with 35 seats.
"Well, I think this gap will be enough," Sipila told broadcaster MTV3 when asked if he saw himself a winner after vote forecasts were broadcast. "This result will enable several possible coalition combinations."
A coalition that includes Finns Party, formerly known as the True Finns, could reinforce Finland's hardline stance over bailouts in the euro zone just as the battle for Greece's future in the bloc nears a climax.
The YLE forecast has proved accurate in previous elections. The final results are due after 2000 GMT.
While the Finns Party did worse than expected - latest polls had them a close second - Sipila may still favour the populists over the centre-left Social Democrats in building a new coalition, analysts say.
Sipila has said he is open to including the Finns Party in a coalition, even though they could complicate ties with Europe because they oppose bailouts and want to kick Greece out of the euro zone.
"If The Finns go to government, I believe Finland's policy towards Greece will change. It will change for the better, because it can't get any worse," Finns Party leader Timo Soini told reporters.
Stubb, who favours NATO membership for Finland, has led a quarrelsome left-right coalition widely blamed for failing to revive the economy and curb public debt growth after three years of recession.
The Centre Party was in power for many years after the Second World War. But Sipila, who favours austerity and trimming welfare, is mostly an unknown quantity.
Respected as a businessman in startups and telecommunications, the rural grassroots of his party are conservative. He himself is a member of "Word of Peace", part of a Lutheran revival movement that sets himself apart from more secular-orientated political leaders.
The Finnish economy has been hit by weak private consumption and turbulence in neighbouring Russia, a major trading partner.
The economy is expected to grow just 0.5 per cent in 2015, according to the finance ministry. The new coalition is seen cutting public spending and carrying out difficult structural reforms to rein in debt.
With a tradition of having majority coalitions, Finland's next Centre Party-led coalition will probably include two of the three runners-up. But government talks could last several weeks.
Traditionally, the second placed party is awarded the finance minister post in the future ruling coalition.
All the major parties have pledged some type of austerity and structural reforms, with some focusing on the welfare state, others on boosting investment or cutting red tape.