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Will Finland’s Dancing Queen lose her crown?

The world loves Sanna Marin, but as an election looms, her country may not feel the same

Prime Minister of Finland Sanna Marin talks to the media at a standup doorstep press briefing. Photo: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Having been dubbed the “coolest world leader of all time” and a much-needed breath of fresh air in European politics, Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin is in danger of becoming old hat.

The world’s youngest head of government four years ago as a 34-year-old, the still youthful premier is fighting to keep her job in this weekend’s elections in a tight three-way race held in the shadow of war.

Although her Social Democratic Party (SDP) is a close joint second behind the conservative National Coalition Party, led by Petteri Orpo, the knife-edge general election is expected to conclude her eventful premiership. She shares second place with the anti-immigration Finns Party, whose rise to prominence has been ringing alarm bells about the prospect of another rightward shift in Scandinavia just months after Sweden elected a government supported by a party with neo-Nazi roots. 

The heavyweight priority issues — the war in Ukraine and Finland’s Nato membership, which Turkish president Erdogan is finally expected to approve — could mean that Finland is looking for harsher, tougher leadership after four years of a leftist alliance, even though all Finnish parties are now hawkish on defence. Here, the National Coalition has an advantage simply because it has always supported Nato membership and prioritised security relating to Russia, with which the country shares a 1,340 km border.

If Marin falls to the challenge from the right, this would bring to an end an era marked by her careful management of the Covid pandemic, a seismic volte-face on neutral Finland’s Nato accession in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a politically near-fatal coalition row over minority rights — and a leaked video of Marin singing and dancing with celebrity influencers. That caused such a scandal at home that Marin ended up taking a drug test (negative) and Hillary Clinton felt moved to tweet a video of herself dancing in a riposte to those who think women can’t both run a country and channel their inner Cyndi Lauper. 

Marin will be badly missed by the international media. The photogenic premier has always played well abroad, with focus on her apparent competence and fluency on issues such as defence and the Ukraine war vying with the impulse to focus on her youth and the appropriateness of her behaviour and dress. According to a recent survey, Finland has scored more mentions in other countries’ media during her premiership, its profile as the country that regularly tops global happiness charts enhanced by having a leader you’d want to go for a drink with.

“The world loves Sanna Marin,” laughs Teivo Teivainen, a political scientist at the University of Helsinki. But the people of Finland are more divided on her premiership. Those adoring column inches will probably have to go. “It depends on who you ask. It’s not over for her yet, I wouldn’t rule it out. But it’s more likely that she won’t continue as premier…”

Even so, her polling is still a triumph for the plain-speaking feminist. “A party leading a coalition like hers after four years tends to go down in the polls. It’s arguably more notable that her party’s popularity isn’t lower than it was, in fact it’s slightly higher than in the last election,” says Teivainen. Despite her inexperience, her presence is an asset and has helped bring younger supporters to a party that traditionally attracts older voters. “Also,” Teivainen adds, “she is the most personally popular of the leadership candidates.”

This could put Marin in a good position to join a new coalition, and certainly shows she could live to fight another day. But she nearly didn’t even get this far, since the latter part of her premiership was plagued by several disputes within her own five-party coalition over issues such as trans rights, the environment and the rights of the Sámi — Europe’s only recognised indigenous people. The latter, a row with the Centre Party over updating rules on devolved issues affecting the Sámi threatened to bring the government down months before the elections, something that stunned everyone involved and exposed the fissures already plaguing the Marin administration.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with us or our power — it was a lot more about the tensions within the government and the Centre Party testing its limits,” Petra Laiti, chair of the Sámi Youth Finland Organisation, tells me. Finland has already been slammed by the United Nations for violations in its treatment of the Sámi, an Arctic indigenous people whose traditional homeland covers parts of Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland. Marin has been embarrassed by the continued failure to pass already agreed new laws relating to devolved issues because of what Laiti describes as “murky” manoeuvrings. 

This was “shameful”, Laiti says, and it wasn’t just because of racism and discrimination, but a fight for the power base and the opportunities for mining, logging and tourism-based development in northern territories, lands the Sámi describe as Sápmi. It’s a row that goes to the heart of a very modern, global argument over the immediate spoils of industry and development and the existential preservation of the environment. Here, it’s being fought among the indigenous Sámi people — if more rights and power are granted to the Sámi, with their environmentally-sensitive traditions, there would be less for supporters of the landowner-backed, rural-origin Centre Party to play for.

It’s hard to see the Centre Party and Marin, who had styled this as an important human rights advance, working together in a new coalition. And since Marin has also ruled out working with the Finns, whom she calls “racist”, Finland will probably be left with the option of the National Coalition Party, either swinging left towards Marin and other leftish parties, including the Greens, or right with an alliance with the Centre Party and the Finns.

Given that a likely outcome is a coalition led by a conservative party that has run the country before, the result of these elections may not be politically epoch-changing, but the issues that surround it mean this could be seen to represent a microcosm of modern-day European trends and worries, of the persistent spectre of ugly divisions that thrives amid the fragility of disappointed progress.

While the Sámi rows spotlight minority rights and the environment, the demise of the Marin government is symbolic on many other counts — a groundbreaking, completely female-led coalition will be dissolved, yet another internationally popular female head of government removed after a spate of other election losses and resignations. The politically weak European left loses one of the few leaders it saw as the future. 

There is at least one bright spot for progressive feminists— a record 42,9% of all candidates are women in these elections, and two of the three top party leaders are women.

More worrying is the fact that the Marin coalition could be superseded by one involving yet another rising European hardline, anti-immigrant party — headed by Riikka Purra, a populist female leader on the right, like Giorgia Meloni in Italy and French pretender Marine le Pen — as the traditional centre right and left are increasingly chipped away. The Finns Party — which could yet come out top — rose from obscurity a decade ago when criticising European bailouts after the eurozone crisis. It has since expanded from simple Euroscepticism and taken the campaigning to darker places.

Racist tropes have appeared, including an incendiary advert by Helsinki candidate Laura Jokela, who uploaded images on her social media accounts depicting herself with half her face apparently covered in a burqa. It was captioned “East Helsinki. Like going abroad?”, putting a threatening, nativist stamp on the multicultural east side of Finland’s capital. Soon, complaints began about “immigrant criminals who invade Finland”. 

Some Finns activists have supported banned neo-Nazi groups. It boasts MPs with multiple convictions for racism. The popular former party leader Jussi Halla-aho, previously fined for racist comments linking Islam to paedophilia and Somalis — the major immigrant group — with theft. It’s little wonder that Muslim parliamentary candidates, such as Somali-born Suldaan Said Ahmed, have spoken of threats and racially-motivated assault on the campaign trail. 

It’s a big contrast to the image Marin cultivated. Her impassioned, slick public performances and communication skills as she promoted anything from breastfeeding and parental leave to standing up to Russia and arming Ukraine have impressed, and she was generally seen as competent and well prepared. She has been outspoken on foreign policy — unusually for a Finnish prime minister — speaking out not only against Russia but also human rights in China.

But she’s not immune to controversy. Just before the election she suggested that Finland could send “Hornet” fighter jets to Ukraine without apparently having consulted her own government or defence officials. And the dancing episode made her vulnerable to the double standards that afflict women politicians, who are trivialised and depicted as frivolous for things that men get away with.

The celebrity-heavy company Marin keeps has been criticised, too, and even after she leaves office her life is likely to be starry. In May, Marin will be receiving an honorary doctorate from New York University in a glamorous line-up including Misty Copeland, the American National Ballet’s first black principal dancer, and Salman Rushdie.

Still, she survived the criticism without alienating her fans. But the electoral race is not fought on Instagram or the style pages. In many ways this election comes down to the more prosaic issue of the economy, where Marin is under fire by the opposition for letting public debt spiral.

Campaigning on a pledge to upgrade public services, especially national health care, she has also promised to invest in education, employment, and Finland’s generous welfare system, vehemently opposing one of the main planks of the opposition challenge — fiscal reticence. She prefers to discuss closing tax loopholes and taxing capital and inheritance at higher rates.

“We are not going to get public spending in balance, or maintain a healthy society through cuts,” Marin said as she launched her campaign. “That is the bitter medicine of the political right and it does not work.”

But that’s exactly what opposition leader Orpo says is needed — a dose of austerity and cost-cutting. A former finance minister, Orpo points to the rise of government debt as a share of Finland’s economic output to 70.9% in the third quarter of 2022 compared with 68.7% for the same period the year before, and claims that this risks undermining the very welfare provision that Marin has promised to safeguard. 

The figures are not catastrophic relative to other European countries, but outpace other Scandinavians and the image of Marin as a spendthrift has taken hold. On this issue, Purra and Orpo appear to be on the same page, signalling some common ground for a coalition. 

“If the National Coalition party were to choose the true Finns they would agree on Nato and security and defence and they could probably find a common turn on finance, economy and balancing the budget, but it won’t be easy,” said former prime minister, Alexander Stubb, who was Orpo’s boss in government. “The Finns are a populist party and when it comes to austerity they will struggle.” 

Given the unity on the Ukraine war and Nato, core foreign policy is unlikely to change regardless of who comes to power, adds Stubb, now director of the School of Transnational Governance of the European University Institute. There could, however, be “ problems with EU policy”, with the essentially anti-European Finns.

Consensus on climate policy could be hard in any coalition including the Finns, who want to delay carbon neutrality until 2050, diluting the 2035 net zero target supported by others.

But the big question for the next government would be whether the National Coalition, with its desire for more migration for economic reasons, could find a position that accommodates the Finns party’s anti-migrant views.

“The Finnish party has economically become much closer to the traditional pro-business, right-wing economic policy line that the National Coalition party has,” Teivainen says. “In many ways relatively close on the economy policy but not migrants and immigration.” 

The National Coalition Party believes Finland needs more immigration to make up for its ageing population and replenish the workforce. Yet Purra has cleaved to the same alarmist tactics over gang warfare and alleged immigrant crime that the populist Sweden Democrats have exaggerated and exploited — even though Finland’s crime rates are low and the violence and number of immigrants in Finland are fewer. 

She has vowed to cut the number of those from developing countries “outside the European Union” coming into the country. “We want to heavily reduce immigration that is harmful for our country,” she told Reuters before the elections, describing the “harm” as the cost to taxpayers. Alluding to Denmark’s tightening immigration policy — part of the right-wing swing that its leader Mette Frederiksen undertook in order to stay in power — she said: “The kind of immigration policy that Denmark has pursued for a while already and that Sweden wants to implement now under its new right-wing government is quite close to what the Finns Party wants to do in Finland.”

In contrast, the overall right-ward shift of the traditionally tolerant Nordic countries has worried many. But Stubb suggests this is overblown. He pointed out that a National Coalition administration with the Finns and the Center party worked reasonably between 2015 and 2019, and emphasised that they managed to run the country without anybody going rogue.

“I was in government with the (then) True Finns in 2015. We literally hugged them to death,” he says, referring to the way the coalition managed to lock them into reforms they promised to oppose on cuts, immigration and money for Greece’s failing economy. “After three months we had driven through one of the most ambitious austerity programmes,” he said. The unexpected asylum and immigration crisis of 2015 meant the objection to immigration had to be watered down. “And in August we decided on the third Greek rescue package. Their support halved.”

But since then, the Finns have undergone changes. In 2017, while still in coalition, the moderates split from the main party and formed another, unsuccessful grouping. Under those who remained, they have become less of an agrarian party and more focused on cultural and identity wars, according to Teivainen. Some believe they are even more extreme than the Sweden Democrats, he says. “They (Sweden Democrats) at least tried to become more moderate in the sense of excluding more of the racists.” 

In today’s shifting populist world, Stubb argues that old narratives defining political parties are outdated, since all populists don’t have the same politics. It’s about values now, he says. “You are either economic liberal or values liberal. A values liberal is on the left but an economic liberal is on the right — I’ve felt quite strongly over the years that this whole classic division into left and right is descriptively not correct.”

The issues surrounding the Finns Party give reason to think that, while Marin may be dethroned, she isn’t necessarily heading out of government. If an accommodation is found on the economy, a new alliance could be built around a Social Democrats and Conservatives, which would also have the advantage of being able to attract the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party, dispelling the spectre of populists and giving Marin the chance to outrage people once more with her exploits. 

Where would this leave the Sámi? Nowhere good. Although a right-wing dominated coalition suggested the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Sámi in Finland, which was eventually set up in 2021, none of the right-wing parties have supported the latest much-needed legal updates, Laiti said, so the proposed extension of rights would likely be put on ice. The National Coalition Party they could live with, she added, but “the most dangerous for the Sámi rights is the Centre party….which has basically ruled over the Finnish ministry for forestry for decades” and with its close ties with right-wing land owners has pushed back more than others against European environmental regulation and restrictions on property owners’ rights.
“In general there is no point in trying to advance Sámi rights with a right wing government. If there is a heavy right-wing government, the Sami will turn inwards and try to do community work at the time being,” she adds. “It’s not always about conscious discrimination necessarily,  but it’s more about the unending potential for growth and development that happens at the expense of the Sámi. It’s going to be a risky time.”

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