HELSINKI (AP) — Early returns in Finland's parliamentary election on Sunday have the center-left Social Democratic Party in first place and the conservative National Coalition Party not far behind with most of the ballots that were cast in advance already counted.
Initial results from the pool of 1.5 million advance votes, representing 36% of eligible voters, were published minutes after he polls closed in what appears to be a tight race.
The Social Democratic Party had 18.9% percent of advance votes from the uncompleted tally and the National Coalition Party 17.2%.
Outgoing Prime Minister Juha Sipila's Center Party and the populist Finns Party were close with 15.4% and 15.1% respectively.
In an election that was dominated by debates about climate change, the Greens had 11.4%.
Officials said some 300,000 advance votes remained uncounted when polls closed at 1700GMT.
The election followed a campaign in which concerns about climate change even overshadowed the issue of how to reform the nation's generous welfare model.
Finland, a European Union member of 5.5 million people, has one-third of its territory above the Arctic Circle. Most political parties support government actions to curb global warming.
Pre-election policy debates over what and how much the Nordic country should do revealed disagreement among voters. The Finns Party railed against public sacrifices in the name of fighting climate change. It put less focus on immigration than anti-migrant, euroskeptic counterparts elsewhere in Europe have done in recent years.
"For everybody, it's about the climate. It's kind of a climate election. Everybody's feeling some kind of a depression about it," voter Sofia Frantsi, 27, an interior architect from Helsinki, told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Voters chose between 2,500 candidates from 19 political parties and movements for the Eduskunta legislature's 200 seats. More results were expected later Sunday night.
"It's clear a vast majority of Finns is hoping that the new parliament takes climate action," Emma Kari, a Greens lawmaker, told the AP as she campaigned on Saturday. "Politicians need to take responsibility."
The top vote-getter typically would try to form a new government with other parties as partners. A Cabinet made up of ministers from different political parties is a long-time tradition in Finland.
The opposition Social Democratic Party, which has traditionally attracted working-class voters, favors raising taxes and increase spending to overhaul a costly Nordic social and health care system that is under strain in one of the countries with the most rapidly aging populations worldwide.
Social Democratic Party leader Antti Rinne, a former finance minister and union leader, said after casting his ballot that all coalition options remained on the table if his party wins the most votes but that Finland's government needs to have "the same value base."
The Social Democrats also back the pro-European Union policies of Finland, which uses the shared euro currency but is not a NATO member. Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) border with Russia.
Rural voters and other residents who feel that the climate change plans of other leading parties require too much sacrifice have been part of the momentum of the populist Finns Party.
"We want a more moderate and sensible climate policy that does not chase industries away from Finland to countries like China," party chairman Halla-aho said Sunday at a Helsinki polling station.
Immigration remains a key policy issue, Halla-aho said.
Greenpeace Finland called Sunday's vote the "climate election," saying that "never before has climate and the limits of planet Earth been discussed with such seriousness in Finland."
The environmental group cited a recent nationwide poll in which 70% of respondents said tackling climate change and reducing carbon footprints should be key priorities of the new government.
Finland is boosting its production of nuclear energy by launching a new nuclear power plant next year. Finnish lawmakers last month voted to phase out burning coal as an energy source to end it by 2029.
Other proposals include increasing the number of electric vehicles on Finland's roads and reducing meat consumption through taxes or serving more vegetarian food as part of publicly funded meals in places like schools and the military.
"Everybody more or less agrees that the climate thing is very important. But then there are other things, like immigration ... and also the big reform of the social and health care," said Sari Hanhinen, a 49-year-old civil servant who voted in a Helsinki polling station.
Finland's outgoing center-right coalition government, led by Prime Minister Juha Sipila of the Center Party, pushed through an austerity package that helped Finland return to growth after a three-year recession but failed to pass a major social and health reform package.
"The negotiations will be very difficult, that's very clear, before they can create a government," said Jukka Vakkila, a 57-year-old doctor from Helsinki. "But I think that they will find some kind of consensus ... Finland could be a good example for other countries in this way."
Olli Kangas contributed.