By Anne Kauranen and Essi Lehto
HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finns cast ballots in a closely contested parliamentary election on Sunday that could cost left-wing Prime Minister Sanna Marin power amid voter concern over the future of generous public services at a time of economic downturn.
With no party seen as holding a decisive lead the election is likely to be followed lengthy coalition talks, although whichever party wins on Sunday will have the first attempt at forming a government.
Marin, 37, is seen by fans around the world as a millennial role model for progressive new leaders and remains very popular among many Finns, particularly young moderates, but she has antagonised some conservatives with lavish spending on pensions and education that they see as irresponsible.
"The right wing offers an alternative that makes life miserable for all of us, cuts services, cuts livelihoods for the poorest," Marin told supporters on Saturday. "We have an opportunity to choose a better alternative."
Opinion polls show her Social Democrats, the biggest party in the outgoing coalition government, in a dead heat with the rightist National Coalition Party and the nationalist Finns Party, with all three seen winning some 18.7-19.8% of ballots.
The National Coalition has led in polls for almost two years although its lead has melted away in recent months. It has promised to curb spending and stop the rise of public debt, which has reached just over 70% of GDP since Marin took office in 2019.
The grouping accuses Marin of eroding Finland's economic resilience at a time when Europe's energy crisis, driven by Russia's war in Ukraine, has hit the country hard and the cost of living has increased.
"Taking on more debt cannot go on for the next 30 years," said Martti Haikio, 73, a history professor. "It's been going on for 30 years - more debt, debt, debt - and good services, fine, but on borrowed money."
The Finns Party, too, calls for austerity but its main goal is to reduce what its leader Riikka Purra has called "harmful" immigration from developing countries outside the European Union.
Voting starts at 9 a.m. (0600 GMT) and closes at 8 p.m. Partial results from early voting will be published shortly afterwards.
Some 1.7 million or 40.5% of eligible voters already cast their ballot during the week-long early voting period that ended on Tuesday, Justice Ministry data showed.
Marin's Social Democrats believe economic growth will help rein in the rise in public debt and that if the coffers need balancing, prefer to contemplate raising taxes over spending cuts.
However, that growth is not imminent. The economy in Finland, a country of 5.5 million, survived the pandemic better than those of most European countries, but growth slowed to 1.9% last year and the country is expected to tip into a mild recession this year, while inflation peaked at 9.1% in December.
Most notable of Marin's foreign policy actions has been her push, along with President Sauli Niinisto, for the country to make a watershed policy U-turn by seeking NATO membership in the wake of security concerns stemming from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
That process is now almost complete, with Helsinki expected to join within days after all the Western defence alliance's 30 members approved the accession.
(Reporting by Anne Kauranen and Essi Lehto in Helsinki; Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Frances Kerry)