LAHTI Finland Finland's ruling conservative party prepared to elect a new leader on Saturday who will take over from Jyrki Katainen as the country's prime minister and contest a general election due in April 2015.
The three candidates made a last push for support at a party congress among nearly 900 local leaders and more senior members of their National Coalition party who will take part in the vote. The result was expected around 1000 GMT.
"The most important thing is that one of us three would become the next prime minister (also after the 2015 election)," Alexander Stubb, one of the candidates, told the congress convened in the city of Lahti in southern Finland for the vote.
All three candidates are ministers in Finland's current ruling five-party coalition. Stubb is the minister for foreign trade and European Union affairs, Jan Vapaavuori for the economy and Paula Risikko for health and social services.
Polls show the candidates in a dead heat to lead a party which is strongly pro-EU and which Katainen has steered in a more liberal direction, both economically and socially.
The new prime minister will take over a country whose economy has contracted for two years in a row, and may shrink again this year as economic indicators show wide-spread weakness.
Stubb, a 46-year old former foreign minister, got a boost from the European Parliament elections last month, where he received almost twice as many votes as the next most popular candidate of any party.
Despite his popularity, especially with young voters, some members say he has little substance behind the flashy facade, and might have problems connecting with older voters.
Vapaavuori, 49, is seen as a tough negotiator with a good knowledge of the economy, but people from rural areas view him with suspicion because they feel overlooked by him.
Risikko, 54, the only woman of the three, appeals to women, social conservatives and those advocating a larger role for the state. She would be the first woman to lead the party and the third female prime minister in the Nordic country.
Prime Minister Katainen, 42, is stepping down to seek a high-level EU job.
(Reporting by Jussi Rosendahl and Sakari Suoninen; Editing by Gareth Jones)