BRUSSELS — Prime Minister Sanna Marin and her Social Democratic Party lost a tight election in Finland on Sunday to a center-right party that focused on economic concerns.
The National Coalition Party, led by Petteri Orpo, 53, captured the most votes in the parliamentary election, followed by the right-wing Finns Party and the Social Democrats. But no party is near a majority in the 200-seat body, and Mr. Orpo is going to have a complicated task pulling together a governing coalition.
With almost 100 percent of the vote counted,late Sunday night, Mr. Orpo’s party had 48 seats with 20.8 percent of the vote, just ahead of the populist Finns, led by Riikka Purra, with 46 seats and 20.0 percent.
Though Ms. Marin has been the closest Finland has to a political rock star, her center-left Social Democrats came in third, with 43 seats and 19.9 percent of the vote.
The agrarian-based Center Party, which has been shrinking, may be a crucial part of a new center-right coalition, winning 11.3 percent of the vote and 23 seats.
It was a narrow defeat for Ms. Marin, 37. Despite her popularity, the election turned on the economy, and Mr. Orpo succeeded in arguing that Finland’s debt is too high and that public spending should be cut.
Mr. Orpo has a choice of trying to join with the Finns or with the Social Democrats, but he would still need the support of other, smaller parties to form a government. During the campaign, he was careful not to offend either of the major parties; Ms. Marin lambasted the Finns as racist.
Mr. Orpo is expected to have the first chance to form a new government and, presumably, become prime minister. But given the tightness of the race, forming a new coalition government is expected to take many weeks of negotiations among the parties, some of whom have ruled out being in a coalition with the Finns Party.
Ms. Marin has been a fresh face for a fresh generation, and made a major impact outside Finland, though she has been more controversial within it. She has gotten good marks for her performance as prime minister, especially on issues like the war in Ukraine and NATO membership, and has been more popular in the polls than her party has.
With Finland about to join NATO, however, the election turned mostly on economic issues: the size of the country’s debt, the future viability of its social welfare system and its policy toward migration. There, Ms. Marin and her Social Democrats garnered more criticism and proved vulnerable.
“Democracy has spoken,” Ms. Marin said after the results were in.
She said: “I believe that the Social Democrats’ message was heard, and that was a values-based message. It has been a great campaign, and this is a great day because we did well. My congratulations to the National Coalition Party and Finns Party.”
Government spending was a key campaign issue.
With the economy contracting and inflation high, Ms. Marin’s opponents accused her of borrowing too much and failing to rein in public spending. Ms. Marin, who became prime minister in 2019, refused to specify any cuts but instead emphasized economic growth, education, higher employment and higher taxes as better answers.
The Finns Party pushed an anti-elitist agenda, concentrating on restricting migration from outside the European Union, criticizing Finland’s contributions to the European Union and urging a slower path toward carbon neutrality. But it has tried to soften its image under Riikka Purra, 45, who took the party leadership in 2021, and it has used social media cleverly, increasing its popularity among young voters.
In general, as in recent elections in Italy and Sweden, the vote showed a shift to the right. Ms. Marin’s party and two others from her current five-party coalition, the Greens and the Left Alliance, had ruled out going into government with the Finns. The Center Party has ruled out joining any coalition resembling the current one.
Ms. Marin’s private life, including videos of her drinking and dancing with friends, gave her celebrity abroad but caused some controversy in socially conservative Finland. She even felt compelled to take a drug test to forestall criticism. But she remained unusually popular for a prime minister at the end of a parliamentary term, said Jenni Karimaki, a political scientist at the University of Helsinki.
Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels, and Johanna Lemola from Helsinki, Finland.