SUNDAY EVENING : ELECTION SPECIAL - MASSIVE GAINS FOR TRUE FINNS AND A BAD NIGHT FOR THE CENTRE PARTY, AS FINLAND EXPERIENCES SWEEPING PROTEST VOTE. NATIONAL COALITION WILL BE LARGEST PARTY (Updated 23:55)
A long and interesting night was forecast, and so it transpired in what was a quite exceptional election in Finnish terms, as the country rejected the Centre-Right government of the past four years and swept the populist and eurosceptic True Finns close to a seat in government.
(This article was first published on Sunday night and was updated several times during the course of the evening; latest figures are at the bottom)
Finns went to the polls today in what has been one of the most eagerly-watched elections in a long time, with many eyes on the outcome not just in Finland itself, but across the European Union, amid speculation that a strong performance from the populist and fiercely eurosceptic opposition grouping the True Finns could affect the bailout programme for Portugal and lead to the country adopting a less amenable attiude towards Brussels than hitherto.
In bright sunny weather, at least in the south, turnout at polling stations was brisk across the country, with long lines forming in some places, indicating a rise in the overall voting figures, which have dipped alarmingly below 70% in recent elections.
The polls closed at 20:00, and the first results of advance voting - in which some 31.2% of the electorate took part - have just come in.
They suggest a very strong showing by the True Finns, and that the Centre Party of Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi has taken a battering. The Centre are only in fourth place behind the National Coalition Party and the opposition Social Democrats and True Finns. The Social Democrats have thus far claimed second place, as the count continues.
Advance voting (20:05)
The approximately 1.3 million votes cast in advance of the Parliamentary Elections were distributed as follows (advance voting percentage from 2007 in parentheses):
National Coalition Party (Cons.) 20.2 % (21.8%)
Social Democrats 19.5% (22.9%)
True Finns 18.6% (3.7%)
Centre Party 17.3 (24.8%)
Left Alliance 8.3% (9.4%)
Greens 6.4% (6.5%)
Christian Democrats 4.3% (4.9%)
Swedish People's Party 3.5% (3.2%)
Others 2.0% (2.6%)
It is important to note that these initial figures are an indicator at best, as they reflect something of a bias towards the rural voters, who traditionally support the Centre Party (formerly known as the Agrarian Union), and who have generally been active in advance voting.
Hence we have chosen to compare them not with the final outcome in 2007, but with the votes cast for each party in advance four years ago.
Furthermore, these advance votes are incomplete, with approximately 200,000 early votes from around the country still to be counted.
Even so, for the Centrists to have lost such a colossal share of their support at this stage of the proceedings does not bode well for their evening, and the phenomenal success of the True Finns - currently expected to secure as many as 38 or 39 seats in the new Parliament - would appear on the face of these numbers to have been drawn in great measure from the defection of former Centre Party voters.
On past experiences, the share of the National Coalition Party and Greens can be expected to rise accordingly as the votes from the larger urban voting districts of the south come in during the course of the evening, but the role of and the strong support enjoyed by the True Finns in this election has meant that we are in many respects sailing in uncharted waters.
Some idea of the complexity of things at this stage might be had from the fact that the Centre Party, which was fourth when the advance votes were announced, had climbed into first place by around 21:00 as votes from small rural communities came in, while at the same time the National Coalition Party, widely expected to be the largest in the country (for the first time ever) when the dust settles, began in pole position but by 21:00 it had dropped to fourth.
However one looks at these numbers, and however "temporary" they may be, there is no doubt whatsoever that Finland has seen a protest wave of tsunami proportions sweeping through the electorate.
That the True Finns could jump from a handful of seats in 2007 to nearly forty now, and that the opposition Social Democrats - who have been largely in the doldrums in recent years - could achieve what looks like an effective defensive victory, are two firm indications that the current government has received a vote of no confidence.
This embraces such things as the country's immigration policy, burgeoning income disparities, job losses in the pulp & paper industry, disgreements over pensions and retirement age, and the recent bailouts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, and also a more general sense of malaise with "politics as usual" that has been accelerated by the election financing scandals of the last campaign.
We can already infer that the Centre Party have taken a hammering and a half, and paid a heavy price for being the Prime Minister's party, and that the True Finns are the runaway winners thus far, but the full outcome of the election will only start to emerge properly when Sunday's votes begin to come in in larger numbers.
Advance voting ended on Tuesday 12th April, and since then undecided voters have had several days in which to make up their minds.
A traditionally accurate benchmark for the result has been the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE's election prognosis, which is expected at or around 21:30.
The names of the new contingent of 200 MPs will only become clear as the count progresses, though naturally a few front-runners will emerge early on who can be said with some certainty to be in the new intake.
One racing certainty is the True Finns' chairman Timo Soini, who seems likely to be at or near the top of the pile in Uusimaa, and could even outgun the National Coalition's star candidate, Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb.
Another possible outcome, at least on the strength of votes counted so far, is that Finland may be getting its first immigrant MP, possibly two of them, and will certainly be getting its first black (and gay) Member of Parliament.
This is a small but interesting development against a background where the election was fought at least in part over immigration matters, and where Finland's political battle-lines have imperceptibly moved from the traditional left-right axis towards liberal vs. conservative views, as evidenced by the recent furore over remarks about same-sex marriage by the leader of the Christian Democrats.
Finally, it must be noted that this will be a very fresh-faced Parliament. If the True Finns gain nearly 40 seats and had only five in the last Parliament, it stands to reason that there will be a very large number of new faces, many of them with little or no political experience.
What this will mean for day-to-day politics in the House is still open to speculation, but in the weeks leading up to the election several commentators noted the tough job facing Timo Soini in keeping his True Finns troops in order.
The Finnish Broadcasting Company's (YLE) forecast, which seeks to smooth out the bumps noted above in the vote-counting process and paint a picture of the likely outcome, produced an even bigger bombshell than the advance votes.
It suggested that the True Finns and the National Coalition Party would be neck-and-neck for the title of largest party in the country, with both scoring just under 20% and gaining just over 40 seats in the new Parliament. The SDP remain in third with 18.5%, ahead of the Centre Party with 16.4%.
The latest figures would appear to make it very hard to sideline the True Finns from the next government, and indeed the Social Democrat chairwoman Jutta Urpilainen said as much in an interview for YLE immediately after the numbers went up.
Quite what sort of government might emerge in the weeks ahead is really anybody's guess as yet, but few would predict that the government formation talks will be very easy - such are the battle-lines drawn between for instance the pro-Europe National Coalition Party and the eurosceptic True Finns - or that there is any certainty that a government that is formed will actually have the wherewithal to sit for a full four-year term.
Equally, with the four largest parties (already this very sentence is a novelty - Finland has not experienced FOUR large parties for many, many years) being so closely balanced, and with the Centrists smarting from their heaviest-ever postwar defeat and unlikely to be in the running for government office, it is hard to see that "any two of the other three" could govern without a sizeable input of support from minor parties such as the Greens, the Left Alliance, the Swedish People's Party, or the Christian Democrats.
More updates when we have more details... (though it looks as if this election could keep on giving well into the night, as the final places are fought over in the open-list d'Hondt system of proportional representation used in Finland).
All the votes should be counted by midnight, and until then it is probably unwise to post interim figures - the protest trend is already crystal-clear.
Turnout: 70.4% (2007: 67.9%)
Votes cast: 2,934,084
Eligible voters: 4,392,880 (men 48.0%, women 52.0%)
National Coalition Party 44 seats (-6 from 2007) percentage of votes 20.4% G
Social Democratic Party 42 (-3) 19.1% O
True Finns 39 (+34) 19.0% O
Centre Party 35 (-16) 15.8% G
Left Alliance 14 (-3) 8.1% O
Greens 10 (-5) 7.2% G
Swedish People's Party 9 (0) 4.3% G
Christian Democrats 6 (-1) 4.0% O
Others 1 (0) 2.0% O
G = current government party; O = opposition party
That "+34" just above should confirm that this election more than lived up to its advance billing.
Not since the heyday of Veikko Vennamo and the Finnish Rural Party in the 1970s have we seen such a changing of the guard, or such a violent blood-letting as befell the Centre Party, who slumped from 51 seats to 35.
It will certainly take some digesting - by the media, by the politicans themselves, and quite probably by Brussels.
We will return tomorrow with some more details of who was elected, who were the kings and queens of the ballot-box, and who stumbled at the last fence (one of the most prominent was veteran Centre Party politician and former Foreign Minister Paavo Väyrynen, who was among the many Centre Party fallers on a very uncomfortable night for Mari Kiviniemi's party), and possibly with some analysis of where the country goes from here.
Finland is not renowned for outlandish behaviour in politics, even if the country is justly famous for bizarre summer contests, but we can definitely say after tonight that we live in very interesting times.
The famed "social media" reacted to the election outcome with its usual alacrity: a hastily-erected Facebook virtual sanctuary - "The Fenno-Ugrian Refugee Centre of London" - almost instantly gained a membership of several thousands, in a sign that not everyone is entirely confident that the next four years will be any easier than the last four, even under new management.
Until tomorrow, goodnight.
HS Election Results Service (real-time, in Finnish)