Finland's young leader is popular but faces tough reelection

·5 min read

HELSINKI (AP) — A parliamentary election in Finland on Sunday is shaping up as an extremely close race between three parties as Prime Minister Sanna Marin's Social Democrats fight to secure a second term running the government.

The election is taking place days after Finland cleared the last big hurdle in its 10-month campaign to join NATO. Turkey's parliament ratified the northern European nation's membership in the Western military alliance late Thursday.

Marin, who at age 37 is one of Europe's youngest leaders, has received praise for her Cabinet's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her vocal support of Ukraine in the last year has increased her international visibility. She remains popular at home, but Finns are also frustrated with their country's rising cost of living.

The economy, climate change and others issues that affect voters' daily lives — like education and social benefits — have dominated the election campaign. Job creation and Finland's rapidly increasing government debt are issues that will likely preoccupy the next government of the Nordic nation of 5.5 million.

“Above all, we must seek economic growth and stronger employment,” Marin said in a recent interview with Finnish public broadcaster YLE. “If we don’t succeed in these two things, we won’t be able to reduce our indebtedness, and we won’t be able to balance our economy.”

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted Finland to seek NATO membership in May 2022, neither the historic decision to abandon the nation's non-alignment policy nor the war have emerged as major campaign issue. Finland shares a long land border with Russia.

Marin played a prominent role, along with President Sauli Niinistö, in advocating for Finland's application to join NATO, which was made in tandem with Sweden. On Friday, she thanked the countries that supported its membership.

There was a broad consensus among the country’s political parties and overwhelming domestic support for membership in the Western military alliance.

Kimmo Elo, a senior researcher in parliamentary studies at the University of Turku, said that Finland's pending bid played “a very small role” in the campaign, making it unlikely that Turkey's ratification would emerge as a matter of debate or impact voters' choices.

Over 2,400 candidates from 22 parties are vying for the 200 seats in Finland’s parliament, the Eduskunta. But opinion surveys suggest that three parties will dominate the pack: Marin’s Social Democratic Party, the center-right National Coalition Party and the right-wing populist The Finns party.

Recent polls indicated each could take about 20% of the vote Sunday. If that happens, no party would be in position to form a government alone; whichever one wins the most votes is expected to begin talks next week on forming a governing coalition.

Finland's largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, published an editorial that described the election as "a real thriller" and predicted that the tight contest would likely inspire voters to turn out. Some 40% of eligible voters already have cast ballots in advance.

Marin has been prime minister since December 2019. Her party leads a center-left coalition government with the centrist Center Party, the Green League, the Left Alliance and the Swedish People’s Party in Finland.

The leaders of all five parties are women, which has made Marin's Cabinet a rarity in Europe and rest of the world. Out of a total 19 Cabinet members, 11 are women.

Marin has ruled out the Social Democrats partnering with The Finns after the election, citing substantial differences in values and policies. The populist, nationalist party's candidates have run on an anti-immigration and anti-European Union platform.

Should Marin's party win, forming the same coalition again is out of the question as the Center Party has said it doesn't favor such a government composition any more.

The populists, who also have a woman as party leader, are in turn highly critical of a goal set by Marin's government to make Finland carbon-neutral and fossil-free by 2035, calling the policy naïve and unrealistic. The Finns envision the country becoming carbon neutral in 2050 at the earliest.

“Is this how Finland really thinks of saving itself? With green promises and throwing money at everything that sounds good?" Finns leader Riikka Purra wrote in the party's recent newsletter, referring to pledges by Marin's Cabinet to increase investments in a green transition and economy.

The National Coalition Party, led by former Finance Minister Petteri Orpo, shares the same climate-neutrality target as the Social Democrats but could find it difficult to agree on economic policies. NCP is open to forming a coalition with The Finns.

Orpo, who has headed the party since 2016, has pledged a government under his leadership would create some 100,000 new jobs and encourage entrepreneurship.

The National Coalition Party also wants to increase the share of energy that Finland gets from nuclear power. The country currently has five reactors which produce about 40% of its electricity.

“One of the most important tasks of the future government is to remarkably speed up the construction of new nuclear power plants in Finland,” Orpo said, writing in a blog on the party's website that the next prime minister should make nuclear power “the cornerstone of the government’s energy policy.”

___

Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed.

Jari Tanner, The Associated Press