As Finland prepares to go to the polls on Sunday, the country’s leftist Prime Minister Sanna Marin is fighting for her political life.
Marin broke the mold to become the world’s youngest serving prime minister in 2019 at the age of 34.
She leads the country’s Social Democratic Party, heading Finland’s five-party coalition government.
Marin worked as a cashier after graduating from high school and was the first member of her family to attend college. She entered politics at age 20 and quickly rose through the ranks of the centre-left Social Democratic Party.
Since coming to power, she has been seen on the world stage as something of a trailblazer, setting an example for progressive leaders around the world.
Her youth and sex set her apart from her predecessors, who were mostly middle-aged men.
Marin and his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern were quick to shoot down a reporter who asked what was the purpose of the first-ever visit to New Zealand by a Finnish prime minister late last year.
“A lot of people will wonder if you’re just dating because you’re the same age and, you know, you have a lot in common there,” the reporter told a joint news conference in Auckland. “We come together because we are prime ministers,” Marin said in response.
Now Marin and his Social Democrat party are threatening to be usurped this weekend, with the latest poll from Finnish public broadcaster Yle showing the country is facing a shift to the right.
Petteri Orpo’s right-wing National Coalition Party is the favorite by a narrow margin, followed by Riika Purra’s Finnish Nationalist Party and then Marin’s SDP party.
“The three parties are so close that any one of them could be the leader on Sunday,” Tuomo Turja of polling firm Taloustutkimus, which conducted the poll for Yle, told the outlet.
While Marin has been praised internationally for her progressive policies, including on trans rights, she has been criticized at home for her coalition’s high public spending.
Marin’s government placed importance on funding public services such as health and education to ensure economic growth. But his political rivals accuse him of not controlling the country’s finances.
This comes at a time when Finland is expected to tip into recession this year. According to the Bank of Finland Bulletin, Finland is facing the kind of problems seen in the world: an energy crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine and a rising cost of living.
Orpo and Purra pledged to boost public finances, with Orpo saying his main concern would be tackling the country’s debt, even if that meant cutting social spending such as unemployment benefits, according to Reuters.
Teivo Teivainen, a professor of global politics at the University of Helsinki, explained that while Marin’s generous public spending was arguably necessary during the pandemic, his promises to continue such policies were cause for concern.
“For his opponents, mostly opponents of his party in general, the main issue is increased government spending,” Teivainen told CNN.
“While this may be countered by the assertion that in exceptional times of Covid and war spending was in many ways necessary, his election platform now promises the continuation of relatively high public spending on health, education, elder care and other welfare issues.
“So his right-wing opponents say it’s irresponsible to tackle government debt.”
Marin faced a domestic backlash last year when footage emerged of her dancing with friends.
She admitted partying ‘in a loud way’ after the private videos were posted which went viral online – but said she was angry that the footage, which drew criticism from political opponents, had been leaked to the media.
“These videos are private and shot in a private space. I don’t like that these became public knowledge,” Marin told reporters in Kuopio, Finland.
“I spent a night with my friends. We just partied, also loudly. I danced and sang,” she said.
The footage prompted some of Marin’s opponents to criticize his behavior as unbecoming a prime minister. Mikko Karna, an opposition MP, tweeted that Marin should take a drug test – which later came back negative.
Others showed their support for the Prime Minister, with women around 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 engage in normal activities such as clubbing with friends.
It was not the first time that Marin’s private life was 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.
Whoever wins this election will have to form a coalition of several parties to obtain a majority in Parliament. However, negotiations could prove difficult.
Marin has previously rejected forming a government with Purra’s Finnish party, calling it “openly racist” during a debate in January – a charge Purra has vehemently denied.
Teivainen thinks one of the most likely outcomes of the election is a right-wing government, formed by the Finnish Party and the National Coalition Party.
“The more radically anti-migrant views of the Finnish Party would be moderated somewhat by the National Coalition which recognized the need to attract more migrant workers to Finland for economic reasons.
“It would in any case be a much more fiscally and socially conservative government compared to the current one, but not so different from the right-wing government that preceded it.
“It could also mean that Finland’s current commitment to be carbon neutral by 2035 could be relaxed,” he told CNN.
Purra previously promised his party would delay Finland’s carbon neutrality target, which Marin’s ruling coalition has set for 2035.
According to Teivainen, the other likely outcome is a coalition between the National Coalition Party and the Sanna Marin Social Democrats, which he says “would mean that some, albeit more moderate, turn to right-wing policies , particularly in terms of budgetary discipline”.
Whoever Finland’s new leader is will be tasked with steering the country towards NATO after Turkey finally approved Helsinki’s request to join the military alliance last week, ending months of delay.
Yle surveyed 1,830 Finnish citizens eligible to vote. The survey was conducted from March 1 to March 28, 2023. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus two points.