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Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin appears to have lost her bid for a second term in power – with her party destined for defeat by two conservative opponents in an intense three-way race for control of parliament.

The centre-right National Coalition Party claimed victory on Sunday evening with around 97.7% of the votes counted, coming out on top at 20.7%.

Right-wing populist party The Finns closely followed with 20.1%, while the Social Democrats garnered 19.9%.

Since the top three parties got around 20% of the vote each, none of them will be in the position to form a government alone.

More than 2,400 candidates from 22 parties were vying for the 200 seats in the Nordic nation’s parliament.

“Based on this result, talks over forming a new government in Finland will be initiated under the leadership of the National Coalition Party,” said the party’s leader Petteri Orpo, as he claimed victory surrounded by supporters.

At the age of 37, Ms Marin is one of Europe’s youngest leaders and has been hailed for her cabinet’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as for her prominent role along with President Sauli Niinisto in advocating for Finland’s successful application to join NATO.

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Ms Marin also remains popular at home, but her party’s views on the Finnish economy, which emerged as the main campaign theme, had been challenged by conservatives.

Mr Orpo had hammered on economic issues at a campaign event on Saturday.

“The most important thing in the next government is to fix our economy, push economic growth, balance public economy. And the second very important issue is to build up NATO-Finland,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Finns Party leader Riikka Purra insisted the populist party would focus on shaping policies regarding migration, climate, crime and energy if it becomes a partner in the next government.

“We also want to tighten up our attitude towards the European Union,” Ms Purra said during a campaign event in the municipality of Kirkkonummi, some 28 miles (45km) west of Helsinki.

After voting at Helsinki City Hall, university professor Mariana Seppanen said she believes Ms Marin’s positive reputation overseas surpasses her popularity at home.

“I think usually the party that has been in charge and has the prime minister… loses the election, and the criticism has been very harsh,” Prof Seppanen said. “But I think she (Marin) has a lot of support anyway.”

Aside from Finland’s economy, other issues debated during the election campaign included the government’s increasing debt, climate change, education, immigration and social benefits.

“I know Sanna Marin is very popular, and she has done great, and most Finns also think that she has done an amazing job with the coronavirus,” another voter, Evelina Makela, said in Helsinki.

“But maybe we have to look at the new crisis that we have; some of us still believe that she does a very good job. Other people want something new, apparently,” she added.

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