Not many people in the rest of Europe have been interested in Finnish heads of government in the past – then along came Sanna Marin. As a young, charismatic prime minister, the social democrat has become one of the most sought-after politicians in the EU. Nevertheless, it is completely open whether she can continue to govern after the upcoming parliamentary elections in the NATO candidate country Finland. Three parties have a good chance of becoming the strongest force in parliament.

The conservative National Coalition Party, Marin’s Social Democrats and the right-wing populist party The Finns were almost neck and neck in the polls, with the Conservatives around ex-Finance Minister and opposition leader Petteri Orpo only having a slight lead. “Each of them can be first,” says political scientist Juhana Aunesluoma from the University of Helsinki. “They are so close together that it is impossible to predict the outcome.”

In the last parliamentary election in 2019, the three parties were separated by less than one percentage point. The Social Democrats narrowly won the election under Marin’s predecessor, Antti Rinne. However, Rinne resigned after just under half a year in office in a dispute with the most important coalition partner, the Center Party. The five-party centre-left coalition remained intact. From now on, however, it was led by the previous Minister of Transport and Communications, Sanna Marin. The then youngest head of government in the world was at the head of a predominantly female-dominated government.

NATO accession on the home stretch

Marin, now 37 years old and Prime Minister for over three years, has guided Finland through a trying time ever since. First came the Corona crisis, then the Ukraine war in neighboring Russia, which Finland borders on for a whopping 1,340 kilometers. As a result of the war, Finland decided to apply for NATO membership. After the yes from Hungary on Monday and the announced yes from Turkey, NATO accession – after decades of military non-alignment – is on the home stretch.

Marin recently emphasized again in Parliament that Finland had made historic decisions and mastered major crises during her term in office. “We have seen extraordinary times during this government’s tenure,” she said. Nevertheless, 90 percent of the goals set out in the government program have been achieved.

Politics professor Aunesluoma attests her good work. “It’s basically been crisis management for three years and I think most people in Finland think the government has done a really good job – especially Sanna Marin personally,” he says. “Your leadership is greatly appreciated.”

Joining NATO played no role in the election campaign. According to Aunesluoma, the consensus among the population, the media, experts and the parties is extremely large – so large that it was hardly possible to score points against the political opponents.

Rather, domestic political issues were more important, such as state finances, basic and social services, the aging population, health and education. “It’s basically an election about the Finnish welfare state,” says Aunesluoma. There is a feeling that this system has structural problems.

The True Marine Effect

For the Social Democrats, everything ultimately stands and falls with the young, popular Prime Minister: Marin is a special politician with charisma who can address all possible target groups and get things straight to the point, says Aunesluoma. Their popularity is significantly higher than that of the social democrats themselves.

This popularity is reflected, among other things, in social media. On Instagram, for example, Marin combines impressions from the life of a politician with snapshots from private life, with around a million people from all over the world watching her. “Your Instagram account is really unique for Finland,” says social media expert Essi Pöyry. Marin uses the platform to show her lifestyle and to communicate positive things every day.

Initially known as a tough negotiator and clear communicator, international interest in Marin began after her election as prime minister, says Pöyry. Many people would have started to see her as a symbol of a new generation. “The time was perfect for a young female leader.”

Nevertheless, before the election Sunday it is completely open what the future government will look like and who will lead it. Marin slammed the door on working with the Finns party, says economist and election expert Juha Tervala. As a result, the Conservatives are in the comfortable position that there is virtually no way around them when it comes to forming a government. Ultimately, Tervala believes it could result in a grand coalition between Orpo’s Conservatives and Marin’s Social Democrats, which merges with several smaller parties for a majority.