HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who in 2019 became the world's youngest premier at 34, is battling to stay in power in an election on Sunday as the country faces a recession and her challengers accuses her government of bloated public spending.
Marin, who has appeared on the covers of Vogue and Time Magazine, is considered by fans around the world as a millennial role model for progressive new leaders.
But at home, she has been the subject of mundane political scrutiny, criticised by the opposition for her centre-left coalition's debt-fuelled spending and by the media for her partying at a time when Europe's energy crisis hit Finland hard.
Marin says spending on education and health services is key to securing economic growth. Her rivals, Petteri Orpo of the right-wing National Coalition Party and Riikka Purra of the nationalist Finns Party, are calling for fiscal austerity to restore government finances.
The three parties are running neck-and-neck in opinion polls, with the most recent survey showing the National Coalition leading with 19.8% support, ahead of Marin's Social Democrats and the Finns Party at 19.2% each.
And while personally popular, it is unclear if her popularity will translate into victory for her party in the parliamentary vote. In 2019, the Social Democrats won very narrowly, with 17.7% of the vote.
In response to neighbouring Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Marin's government overturned decades of military non-alignment and led Finland to apply for membership of NATO, a move supported by almost all members of its parliament.
But both challengers say Marin's five-party coalition failed to rein in public finances, and promise to put an end to a cycle of borrowing if they win.
With public debt at 71% of GDP as of the third quarter of 2022, up from 65% when Marin took office in late 2019, mainly due to spending to support businesses and households through the coronavirus pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine, Finland's indebtedness ranked 10th among the 20 euro zone nations, according to Eurostat.
Marin's Social Democrats believe economic growth will help Finland stop accruing more debt and, if need be, prefer raising taxes over spending cuts.
Finland's economy survived the COVID pandemic better than those of most European countries, but growth slowed down 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.
Orpo told Reuters his priority was to put debt back on a healthy track, even if that would mean painful cuts to welfare spending, such as unemployment benefits.
Any winner will have to form a coalition of several parties to obtain majority in parliament but no ties have been confirmed before the vote.
Marin has rejected forming a government with the Finns Party, calling it "openly racist" during a debate in January - an accusation Purra sternly rejected.
"There is nothing to hide, to be ashamed of or obscure in our values. We are a nationalist and patriotic party: we defend Finland and Finnishness," Purra wrote on Twitter at the time.
In an interview with Reuters, Purra said her priority was to cut back on immigration from developing countries outside the EU, calling it "harmful" for the country.
Her party would also push back Finland's carbon neutrality target which Marin's ruling coalition set for 2035.
The polls are due to open at 0600 GMT on Sunday, with early results from advance voting, which ended on Tuesday, released when the vote closes at 1700 GMT.
(Reporting by Anne Kauranen in Helsinki; Editing by Terje Solsvik and Alison Williams)