What can we learn from Sanna Marin, prime minister of Finland?

Sanna Marin, prime minister of Finland. Photo credit: Demarit on Flickr licensed under CC

In a world where less than a quarter of parliamentarians are female, and just 21 women sit as the head of state or government (out of 193 countries), Finland stands out. In December 2019, Sanna Marin was elected as prime minister of Finland and, at the age of 34, she also became the world’s youngest-serving prime minister. She heads up a five-party, left-of-centre, female-led coalition government and, although women are underrepresented in governments worldwide, she is Finland’s fourth female prime minister. She has also led her country through the same crisis all world leaders have faced this past year, the COVID-19 pandemic. And while she does not get as many headlines as Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, her record is impressive.

Sanna Marin has served as an MP since 2015, and since becoming prime minister she has led on critical policies that will make a tangible difference to society in Finland. She is a confidently left-wing politician, pushing for progressive policy changes, such as a four-day working week and giving fathers the same amount of paid parental leave as mothers. Finland has an ageing population due to a post-war baby boom and needs to increase birth rates, so enabling fathers to share parental leave will help with this.

She’s been working hard on policies to address the climate crisis. Her government has prioritised biodiversity, pledging to be carbon neutral by 2035 and wanting Finland to take an active role in the global green recovery and green transition. She also promotes sustainable food systems and renewable energy.

Her clear communication style during the pandemic has won her widespread praise. Her cabinet held weekly briefings, one of which was specifically for questions from children. She acknowledges that the low population in Finland (around 5.5 million) has made a difference to the handling of the pandemic, as has the country’s existing culture of keeping social distance and trusting authorities. There were already laws in place for dealing with pandemics, and emergency stockpiles of protective equipment. Marin’s government also quickly put in place an effective test, trace, isolate and quarantine system.

Sanna Marin uses social media effectively to communicate with the people of Finland. She regularly shares photos of her family life on Instagram (she married her long-term partner in 2020, and they have a young child together).

She has been featured in Tatler and Vogue and other international publications, talking about her work to address gender inequality. Perhaps all too predictably, one of the biggest stories on her was regarding what she’d worn in an interview, driven by backlash about her outfit. Estonia’s interior minister once called her a ‘sales girl’. On social media, many expressed their support for Marin, pointing out the sexism of her critics and asking if a male leader would face the same personal comments and scrutiny.

Montage of 12 photos showing people wearing blazers with nothing underneath. Hashtag #imwithsanna - reference to the backlash about the outfit Sanna Marin had worn in an interview.

Utopian landscape

Finland has beautiful topographies, a good education system and low crime rates. Research shows its people are generally happy. Thanks to the Working Hours Acts passed in 1996 and 2020, flexible working is part of the culture. Finland also has the third most gender-equal society in the world and the fifth lowest income inequality, along with high levels of employment, with only 6.6% unemployed.

Homelessness has been virtually eradicated through their ‘Housing First’ policy, which provides housing for people in state-owned accommodation. The Finnish government already owned enough housing to start this policy in 2008 and subsequently created even more homes. As a consequence, there is almost no homelessness in Helsinki.

A wintery shot of Helsinki at night.
Helsinki at night. Photo credit: Alexandr Bormotin on Unsplash

A closer look

So far this story makes Finland sound like a wonderful, progressive country to live in. But for anyone considering looking into emigrating there, it is worth taking a closer look first. Despite the success of Sanna Marin and her coalition government, the far-right anti-immigration Finns Party is not far behind her in recent polls, and gaining momentum.

A study in 2020 about the political attitudes of young Finnish people aged 18–29 showed that anti-immigration views were strongest amongst the privileged. In 2019, just two months before Marin was elected, the Council of Europe called on Finland to address a rise in racist and intolerant hate speech. The ECRI regretted that the:

“racist and intolerant hate speech in public discourse and on the internet has been escalating, mainly targeting asylum-seekers, Muslims, persons of African descent, LGBT persons, Roma and the Jewish community.”

Despite Marin’s much-lauded handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, dissatisfaction with the current government has been growing. Hate speech and intolerance also continues to increase.

And while Sanna Marin’s social media presence is predominantly positive, the same is not true for others in her cabinet. When the finance minister asked in an Instagram poll if women and children linked to the so-called Islamic State should be allowed back into the country, she met outrage and later had to apologise.

Lessons from Finland

There are certainly aspects of Finland’s government and policy which are both interesting to look at and inspirational, but the picture perfect Instagram image of Sanna Marin and the country she governs fails to tell the full story. However, the benefits of a coalition government, where the electorate is accurately represented (Finland has had proportional representation since 1906) and ideas are openly shared and discussed, are clear. Sanna Marin’s government contains 20 Green MPs (11% of the vote in the last general election) who have been able to influence the ambitious carbon neutral policies. The coalition has also enabled a lot of the progress on gender equality and other environmental policies.

It will be interesting to see what follows next, given that the ultra-nationalist Finns Party are doing well in the polls at the very same time as Sanna Marin’s handling of the pandemic is being widely praised. Finland’s next general election will be held in April 2023, or earlier if parliament is dissolved ahead of schedule. People around the world will be watching with interest, including the many UK voters who did not get the government they voted for thanks to our own outmoded, non-proportional electoral system. But of course, that’s another story.

Follow @SussexBylines on social media