This spring the prime ministers of Sweden and Finland made a pair of historic announcements: on 15 May Magdalena Andersson and Sanna Marin declared that their respective countries would end their long-running policies of military non-alignment and apply to join Nato. Amid Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine and increasing threats in the region, the Nordic leaders – working in tandem – were securing their nations’ safety, bolstering the Western alliance and defying a nearby authoritarian regime. It was a pivotal moment for both nations, and one celebrated by the majority of Swedes and Finns.
Less than four months later, however, both Marin and Andersson’s political futures are uncertain thanks, in part, to attacks from the far right. For 36-year-old Marin, who has been prime minister of Finland since December 2019, a scandal began after the Finnish tabloid Iltalehti published a leaked video on 18 August showing her exuberantly dancing with friends at a party. The clip triggered a debate about the prime minister’s penchant for “partying” and whether she should act in ways more befitting a head of government, even in her private time. Her supporters argued that Marin was being held to a higher standard than male politicians. It is hard to imagine footage of a male prime minister dancing at a private event inspiring the same level of censure.
Yet it was the far right that inflamed the episode. A message board associated with extreme-right views seized on the scandal, with posters claiming that someone in the video can be heard shouting “jauhojengi” or “flour gang”, a supposed reference to cocaine. Most Finns said they weren’t familiar with the term but the accusations seeped out from far-right platforms and into the mainstream media, with blanket coverage of the leak and numerous calls for Marin’s resignation.
Though she seemed exasperated by the affair, Marin agreed to a drug test. Yet shortly after the negative results were announced on 22 August, a newly leaked photo showing two of Marin’s female friends in her official residence, kissing and topless, reignited the debate over propriety. On 24 August she made a tearful speech ahead of her party’s leadership meeting, describing the toll the ordeal had taken on her and defending her record: “I haven’t missed a single day of work and haven’t left a single task undone, and I won’t even in the middle of all this.”
In neighbouring Sweden, Andersson has avoided scandal and has been less vulnerable to attacks on her suitability for office. But the far right has still undermined her political future. The nation’s first ever female prime minister, who only took office last November, 55-year-old Andersson has proved one of the most popular political leaders in the country in years. Yet the forthcoming general election on 11 September could see her removed from power.
The far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), which has neo-Nazi roots, has portrayed Andersson’s government as too weak and too lax on two priority issues for voters: gun crime and immigration. The SD’s campaigning has been effective. The party is polling in second place, with potentially enough electoral support to join a governing right-wing coalition for the first time. And though Andersson polls well, her personal appeal hasn’t translated into a significant boost for her Social Democratic Party, which looks likely to win a similar share of the vote as it did in the last election in 2018.
While the SD has so far avoided more explicitly gendered personal attacks against the prime minister, this is likely due to a lack of opportunity, rather than a matter of principle. Instead, they’ve focused their acrimony elsewhere. Annie Lööf, the leader of the Centre Party, has indicated that she would align with Andersson to form a governing coalition, rather than partner with the SDs as part of a right-wing bloc; that support would likely be enough to keep the prime minister in power.
Predictably, Lööf has become a target for the SD, who have raged against her in dozens of attack ads, branding her, among other things, a threat to democracy. On 27 August Lööf revealed in an interview that she’s suffered a deluge of gendered abuse from far-right extremists online, including receiving rape threats. Even more alarming, a Swedish prosecutor revealed that Lööf was a likely target in a terrorist stabbing attack at a political festival in the city of Visby on 6 July. It’s not hard to understand why Andersson has called the SD’s attack on Lööf a “hate campaign”.
That far-right politicians, activists and trolls would try to exploit regressive views of women for their own political gain isn’t a surprise. But the idea that such tactics could potentially undermine, and help displace, prime ministers such as Marin and Andersson is. Both leaders have proved themselves eminently competent, with broad popular support from their respective electorates. Not only have they both managed the pressures of their roles in peacetime – Marin navigated Finland through the Covid-19 pandemic with one of the lowest death rates in all of Europe, and Andersson balanced a fragile minority coalition in a politically fractured Sweden – they’ve also met Putin’s war on Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s direct threats of aggression, with strength.
It’s entirely possible that the fortunes of both leaders will recover: Marin could put the partying scandal behind her, while Andersson could form the next Swedish government. But the ease with which the far right has eroded their political standings, and the complacency that society has shown over the public and private abuse of female politicians, should concern us all.
This article was originally published on 31 August 2022
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine