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  1. World
  2. Europe
3 April 2023

The meaning of Sanna Marin’s defeat

As with Jacinda Ardern, the Finnish prime minister’s international fame disguised her domestic woes.

By Megan Gibson

The result may have been close but it was definitive. As votes were counted in Finland’s 2 April general election, it became clear that the prime minister, Sanna Marin, and her Social Democratic Party (SDP) didn’t have the support required to once again form a coalition government. The party finished third, behind the centre-right National Coalition Party (NCP), which won 20.8 per cent of the vote, and the right-wing populist Finns Party, which took 20.1 per cent. The SDP won 19.9 per cent – a larger share of the vote than in the 2019 election that brought Marin to power (the party actually gained three seats this time round), but not enough to save her premiership.

As the largest party typically leads coalition talks in Finland, the NCP’s Petteri Orpo is poised to become the next prime minister, although it’s not yet clear what shape the new coalition government will take. Marin responded graciously, saying: “The Finnish people have cast their vote, and the celebration of democracy is always a wonderful thing.”

For many of those who didn’t follow the election campaign, her defeat appears to be shocking. After all, Marin, 37, is a Finnish superstar, the young and cool prime minister who steered her country through a global pandemic and set it on the path to Nato membership (while also finding time to party).

[See also: Why is Finland joining Nato?]

Yet for anyone paying attention to the domestic landscape in Finland in recent months, the result was hardly unexpected. The SDP has been polling behind the NCP for the better part of a year; in recent weeks it had regularly fallen behind the Finns as well. Marin personally polls well but there was concern among voters about high public spending. Finland, like much of the western world, is facing soaring inflation and a potential recession; both the NCP and the Finns argued that they would better navigate the economic downturn and tackle public debt. The end of Marin’s premiership wasn’t due to more outrage over her private life or malign forces undermining her, but something far more mundane: her party simply didn’t have a compelling enough offer.

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Yet don’t expect radical changes to Finnish foreign policy as a result. On Nato membership and support for Ukraine, the country’s major parties are almost uniformly aligned. And while the Finns party does have a strong anti-immigration agenda, it’s still unclear how big a force it will be; several Finnish parties have vowed to exclude it from government.

If anything, the real drama of the election comes from what it shows about the schism between Marin’s profile abroad and at home. Not unlike Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Marin’s stature on the global stage eclipsed the difficulties she faced domestically. International observers saw a modern, media-savvy operator who championed progressive causes while wearing a leather jacket. Scant attention was paid to pesky details such as the country’s national debt or the fact Finland regularly changes prime ministers after just one term.

Instead Marin was held up across the media as an international icon, a representative not of Finland but of a broad, if often ill-defined, set of liberal values. For those who followed this version of Marin, her defeat was a tragedy. To many Finns, however, it was just another election.

[See also: Why has Finland joined Nato?]

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