As Finland prepares to go to the polls on Sunday, the country’s left-wing Prime Minister Sanna Marin is fighting for her political life.
Marin broke the mold to become the world’s youngest sitting prime minister in 2019 at the age of 34.
She leads the country’s Social Democrats party, heading Finland’s governing coalition of five parties.
Marin worked as a cashier after graduating from high school and was the first member of her family to attend university. She entered politics at 20 and quickly moved up the ranks of the center-left Social Democratic Party.
Since her rise to power, she has been viewed on the world stage as something of a trailblazer, setting an example for progressive leaders across the globe.
Her youth and gender have made her stand out from her predecessors, who for the most part have been middle-aged men.
Marin and her New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern were quick to shoot down a journalist who asked about the purpose of the first-ever visit to New Zealand by a Finnish prime minister late last year.
“A lot of people will be wondering are you two meeting just because you’re similar in age and, you know, got a lot of common stuff there,” the journalist said during a joint news conference in Auckland. “We are meeting because we are prime ministers,” Marin said in response.
Now, Marin and her Social Democrats party threaten to be usurped this weekend, with the final poll from Finland’s public broadcaster Yle showing that the country faces a shift to the right.
Petteri Orpo’s right-wing National Coalition Party is the frontrunner by a slim margin, followed by Riika Purra’s nationalist Finns Party and then by Marin’s SDP party.
“All three parties are so close that any one of them could be the leader on Sunday,” Tuomo Turja from polling firm Taloustutkimus, which conducted the poll for Yle, told the outlet.
While Marin was praised internationally for her progressive policies, including on trans rights, she faced criticism at home for her coalition’s hefty public spending.
Marin’s government has placed importance on funding public services such as health and education to secure economic growth. But her political rivals accuse her of failing to rein in the country’s finances.
It comes at a time when Finland is expected to tip into recession this year. According to the Bank of Finland Bulletin, Finland faces the kind of problems seen across the world: an energy crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine and a rise in the cost of living.
Both Orpo and Purra have pledged to boost government finances, with Orpo saying his primary concern would be to tackle the country’s debt, even if it meant cutting back on welfare spending such as unemployment benefits, according to Reuters.
Teivo Teivainen, a professor of world politics at Helsinki University, explained that while Marin’s generous public spending was arguably necessary during the pandemic, her pledges to continue that policy has been a cause for concern.
“For her opponents, mostly opponents of her party in general, the main problem is increased public spending,” Teivainen told CNN.
“While this can be countered by the claim that in exceptional times of Covid and war, spending was in many ways necessary, her electoral program now promises continuation of relatively high public spending in health, education, elderly care and other welfare issues.
“So her right-wing opponents say this is irresponsible to counter the indebtedness of the state.”
Marin faced a domestic backlash last year when footage emerged of her dancing with friends.
She acknowledged partying “in a boisterous way” after the release of the private videos which went viral online – but said she was angry that the footage, which prompted criticism from political opponents, was leaked to the media.
“These videos are private and filmed in a private space. I resent that these became known to the public,” Marin told reporters in Kuopio, Finland.
“I spent a night with my friends. We just partied, also in a boisterous way. I danced and sang,” she said.
The footage prompted some of Marin’s opponents to criticize her behavior as unbecoming of a prime minister. Mikko Karna, an opposition MP, tweeted that Marin should undergo a drug test – which later came back negative.
Others came out in support of the prime minister, with women across the world posting videos on social media of themselves dancing, using the hashtag #solidaritywithsanna. Her defenders argued that as a young woman she had the right to enjoy normal activities such as going clubbing with friends.
It wasn’t the first time that Marin’s private life has become politicized in Finland. She previously apologized to the public in 2021 after a photo surfaced of her in a nightclub, following the Finnish foreign minister’s positive test for Covid-19.
Forming a coalition
Whoever wins this election will have to form a coalition of several parties to gain a majority in Parliament. However, negotiations could prove difficult.
Marin has previously rejected forming a government with Purra’s Finns Party, slamming it as “openly racist” during a debate in January – an accusation Purra has vehemently denied.
Teivainen believes one of the most likely outcomes of the election is a right-wing government, formed from the Finns Party and the National Coalition Party.
“The more radically anti-migrant views of the Finns Party would be somewhat moderated by the National Coalition that recognized the need to attract more migrant workers to Finland for economic reasons.
“It would in any case be a clearly more fiscally and socially conservative government compared to the current one, though not all that different from the right-wing government that preceded it.
“It could also mean that Finland’s current pledge to be carbon neutral by 2035 could be made more flexible,” he told CNN.
Purra has previously promised her party would delay Finland’s carbon neutrality target, which Marin’s ruling coalition set for 2035.
According to Teivainen, the other likely outcome is a coalition between the National Coalition Party and Sanna Marin’s Social Democrats, which he believes would “mean some, though more moderate, turn toward right-wing policies, especially in terms of fiscal discipline.”
Whoever Finland’s new leader is, they will be tasked with leading the country into NATO after Turkey last week finally approved Helsinki’s application to join the military alliance, putting an end to months of delays.
Yle interviewed 1,830 Finnish citizens who are eligible to vote. The survey was carried out from March 1-28, 2023. Results have a margin of error of plus or minus two points.
Additional reporting by Reuters.