Sanna Marin: An International Celebrity Faces the Voters
On Sunday April 2 Finns will choose a new parliament. In the last election in 2019, voters could not have imagined that they were electing representatives to face a global pandemic, an aggressive war by its eastern neighbor, and the end of their country’s decades-long foreign policy of neutrality. The country’s Social Democratic Party won the most seats, reversing years of electoral decline. The party chair, Antti Rinne, resigned just months after becoming prime minister. His successor, Sanna Marin, is now facing the voters for the first time as party chair and prime minister.
Since becoming prime minister in September 2019, Ms. Marin has become an internationally recognized politician if not an international celebrity. One must go back to Marshal Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, Finland’s military commander during World War II to find a Finnish leader with such widespread international visibility and popularity. When she became prime minister at age 34, Ms. Marin was the youngest head of government in the world. Ms. Marin has parlayed her youth, progressive political stances, and ability to use social media to become an icon for progressives everywhere in a world of growing authoritarianism and austerity.
Behind the filters of her Instagram postings, Prime Minister Marin has led Finland during one of its most challenging periods. Among prime ministers since World War II, only J. K. Paasikivi, (1944-46) who guided Finland during the difficult immediate postwar period and Esko Aho (1991-95) who led Finland through a depression and into the European Union, bore burdens of comparable weight. Ms. Marin led the country through the pandemic using at times stringent lockdowns. Pictures of her at a nightclub flouting Covid rules did not ultimately hurt her credibility. She was a key leader in Finland’s decision to join NATO after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Her frequent meetings with then Swedish Prime Minister and fellow Social Democrat Magdalena Andersson—one such meeting occurred with Ms. Marin sporting a biker jacket--signaled Finland’s aim to work in concert with Sweden’s application to join the alliance. In addition to mastering these truly exceptional challenges, she brought to fruition long-frustrated pieces of legislation ranging from the reform of the social and healthcare sector to a law on transgender rights.
Despite her international notoriety, accomplishments, and personal popularity among voters, Ms. Marin faces tough odds to become Finland’s next prime minister. Her main coalition partner, the Center Party, has ruled out its participation in a renewal of the current government coalition after the election. For months Marin’s Social Democratic Party has been closely trailing the center-right National Coalition Party in the polls and more recently has been locked in a struggle with the far-right Finns Party for second place. The leaders of the National Coalition Party and the Finns Party have signaled strongly that if one of them takes first place at the polls, the other will join it in forming a coalition. Ms. Marin has categorically rejected joining the Finns Party in government. Ms. Marin might experience the same fate as Magdalena Andersson. Her party gained seats in the parliamentary elections in Sweden in September 2022, but the win could not compensate for the losses of her coalition partners and the decision of the nonsocialist parties save one to collaborate with the far right.
Ms. Marin’s uncertain political future forms part of a larger counternarrative to that of Finland as a paradise of social justice promoted by Ms. Marin and many others. Finland has participated in the global neoliberal race to the bottom. It just joined the race later and has run more slowly than most other countries. The country’s educational system, once a leader in the world, has declined markedly over the last decade. The so-called world’s happiest country suffers from increasing rates of mental illness. In a recent survey, one in four workers under thirty-six feels burned out by work. Finland leads the European Union in drug overdose deaths among those under twenty-five. If the Social Democrats end up in opposition, Finland will likely be governed by the same right-wing coalition including the Finns Party that preceded the current coalition. In a longer-term perspective, Ms. Marin’s government risks becoming a progressive caesura in a longer conservative continuum. Political parties have ceded the issue of immigration to the Finns Party, which has created a solid and growing basis of support by appealing to voters’ fears and bigotries. In a recent survey of foreign students in Finland about half plan to leave the country after they graduate. Black residents experience more racism in Finland than in other EU countries surveyed. As in every election since 2011 when the Finns Party became a major force in Finland's politics, political parties have been unwilling in this election to stand up to the widespread racism that gives traction to the Finns Party.
Defeat at the polls will not end Ms. Marin’s political career. She will still have the virtually undivided support of her party. Her popularity outside of her party will remain strong. She would be a formidable candidate in presidential elections scheduled for early next year. She could leverage her international stature for political positions outside of Finland. Her record of achievement has already a visible place in Finland’s history.
Jason Lavery is Regents Professor of History at Oklahoma State University and Adjunct Professor (Docent) at the University of Helsinki. He has written widely on Finland’s history and present. His works include The History of Finland (2006) and Reforming Finland: The Diocese of Turku in the Age of Gustav Vasa 1523-1560 (2017). He maintains a blog at history-of-finland.com