HELSINKI Finland's co-ruling, eurosceptic Finns party is poised for a loss in Sunday's municipal elections, with the latest opinion polls showing the party far behind its centre-right coalition partners.
The local election is not expected to change the course of Prime Minister Juha Sipila's three-party government, but a loss for the Finns could complicate the coalition's efforts and tip the party's own leadership race in favour of a hardline candidates.
A final poll by broadcaster YLE on Thursday showed Sipila's Centre Party, the co-ruling conservative NCP and opposition party Social Democrats all with the support of around 18 percent of voters. The Finns, the second-biggest party in parliament, ranked fifth with 9.7 percent of support.
The survey was in line with earlier polls showing Finns falling short of the 17.7 percent it got in a parliamentary vote two years ago and below its 12.3 percent in 2012 local elections.
"The Finns have often said they are not as strong in municipal elections as on national level. But if their support falls below 10 percent, they need to find a better explanation", said Kimmo Gronlund, professor of political science at Abo Akademi.
Formerly known as True Finns, the party has in recent years softened its nationalist and anti-EU platform and distanced itself from other European far-right parties, which helped it enter the coalition government two years ago.
But compromises in the government - which policies have included public spending cuts, backing the EU bailout for Greece and providing help for migrants - have angered some of its core voters.
The party's leader, Foreign Minister Timo Soini, is stepping down as party chair in June, and a loss in the local vote could improve Jussi Halla-aho's chances to replace him.
Halla-aho, a member of the European Parliament and an anti-immigration hardliner, is one of two front-runners in the leadership race with lawmaker Sampo Terho, a Soini ally.
A victory for Halla-aho, who would seek Finland's exit from both the euro zone and the European Union if elected, could bring down the country's three-party government, analysts said.
"Loss at the polls would strengthen the anti-immigrant factions' arguments, that government policies are to blame for the party's problems", said Markku Jokisipila, a political scientist at the University of Turku.
Early voting results will be announced after polling stations close at 1700 GMT. A majority of votes is expected to be counted within three hours.
(Reporting by Tuomas Forsell)