HELSINKI, Finland - Finland's nationalist True Finns blew away even the most optimistic predictions on Sunday to suddenly become a major political force even though the National Coalition captured the most seats in a parliamentary election.
The unprecedented result for the anti-immigration and anti-EU True Finns will likely send the parliament lurching right and could obstruct Finnish approval of bailouts for debt-laden European Union member states.
The once tiny populist party captured a stunning 39 seats, up from only six in the outgoing parliament, making it the only party to gain any seats in parliament and landing it in third place, according to a final tally.
The conservative National Coalition's leader, outgoing Finance Minister Jyrki Katainen, is however almost certain to take the prime minister's office and form a government, as his party rose for the first time in history to become the largest in parliament with 44 seats.
"My good friends, we have made history," a flushed National Coalition chair Jyrki Katainen told his supporters as results ticked in.
The opposition Social Democratic Party meanwhile scored a defensive win, beating every polling prediction to grab 42 seats and secure second place, while outgoing Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi's Centre Party was the biggest election loser by far, trading its top place for a distant fourth with 35 seats, something no polls had predicted.
But while he narrowly missed out on taking the reins of government, the True Finns charismatic leader Timo Soini, 48, was the real winner Sunday, after having guided his party from a mere 4.1 percent of votes four years ago to a whopping 19 percent.
"Sometimes it pays to believe in what you stand for, even when you hit obstacles and get made fun of," Soini told supporters as the votes were tallied.
"The True Finns now have a member of parliament in every single electoral district!" he added enthusiastically.
The rise of the True Finns and their anti-EU, anti-immigration rhetoric injected a unpredictable and somewhat chaotic note to election campaigns, boosting voter interest and resulting in an official national turnout of 70.4 percent -- well above the 67.9 percent seen in the last elections in 2007.
"The public is really on the move this time around, that's one good thing that the True Finns have accomplished," 50-year-old Eero Salmi told AFP while the polls were still open, adding that he didn't plan to vote for them.
"We've definitely come out to vote against the True Finns. Their ideology is something that shouldn't be tolerated, so it's especially important this time for me to vote," said 32-year-old Sirpa Kortelainen, adding the environment was the biggest issue for her.
The party's rise will also certainly not be welcomed by Brussels, which is anxiously awaiting Finland's decision on whether or not it will back or veto EU bailouts to debt-ridden EU states.
The True Finns' flat rejection of bailouts and even calls for Finland to abandon the euro largely marked the this year's campaign and their message resonated with many people from other parties as well.
Hari Nordling, a 58-year-old salesman, said earlier he would vote for the Swedish People's Party but largely supported the True Finns' stance on the EU.
"We pay more than we get (from the EU). Those countries... use the money of our taxpayers to help other people," he told AFP in Helsinki.
Prime Minister Kiviniemi, who had only been in power since last June, was meanwhile visibly disappointed at her crushing defeat.
"The conclusion is clear, that with these kinds of results we will be going into the opposition," a muted Kiviniemi told public broadcaster YLE.
Tampere University political analyst Ilkka Ruostetsaari told AFP the results were dumbfounding.
"The True Finn's victory, surpassing every poll and every expectation of a drop on election day... plus the total collapse of the Centre - the whole thing is historic," he said.
Meanwhile, forming a new government, which is likely to happen with Katainen at the helm, could be problematic.
Soini has previously ruled out joining a coalition in favour of increasing loan guarantees to the EU's emergency bailout fund, for instance.
Katainen, meanwhile, has stressed that Finland must "act responsibly" in the bloc to avoid a meltdown of the eurozone, however, his comments on Sunday evening were conciliatory, perhaps with the acknowledgement that forming a government without the True Finns could be difficult.
"When responsible people sit at the same table and talk about Finland's best interests, then solutions can usually be found," Katainen told YLE.