Finland election: Three-way race as Sanna Marin fights for survival

Finland election: Three-way race as Sanna Marin fights for survival

Image caption,

Riikka Purra (L) of The Finns, conservative Petteri Orpo (C) and Social Democrat Sanna Marin are all vying for victory

Finns go the polls on Sunday, in an election seen as a neck-and-neck race between right-wing populists, conservatives and Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s centre left.

Finland may be days from joining Nato, but the war in Ukraine has had no impact on the vote, even though Finland shares the longest border with Russia.

The election battle ground has instead been over the economy.

And Finns are making a big choice on their country’s future direction.

The main challenge to Sanna Marin’s Social Democrats comes from the right.

After four years of opposition Petteri Orpo’s conservative National Coalition Party has high hopes of forming a coalition, but this could be the populist Finns Party’s best chance to lead a government yet.

When Ms Marin, now 37, burst on to the scene four years ago, she was the world’s youngest prime minister at the head of a coalition of five parties, all led by women. Although her poll ratings are still high, she is seen as a polarising figure and came under heavy scrutiny last summer when a video emerged of her singing, dancing and drinking at a party.

“She has a substantial following outside her party,” says Vesa Vares, professor of contemporary history at the University of Turku.

“Many of those who don’t like Social Democrat policies appreciate she had to face the Covid and Ukraine crises and managed to deal with both.”

The big issue during the campaign has been Finland’s public debt and how the country’s prized welfare state can be financed in the future. Sanna Marin has come under attack from the right for increasing the public debt, although she argues the government had to spend big in response to Covid and neighbouring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Matti Koivisto, political correspondent at Finland’s public broadcaster YLE, says it is a particularly Finnish trait to worry about the public finances, but the country is facing an inherent structural problem, with an ageing population and not enough people to finance it.

The labour shortage is most acute in the southern region of Uusimaa, where 30% of the population lives, and it is especially problematic in three of the biggest cities, Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa.

“All the other parties say the only way to preserve Finland’s welfare society is to get people in from abroad to work,” Mr Koivisto told the BBC. “But The Finns are saying we should actually just cut the spending if that’s what is needed.”

The Finns have tried to move away from the far right since new leader Riikka Purra, 45, took over in 2021. Her Instagram feed is filled with wholesome images of healthy meals and snaps of the countryside, and promises “no politics here”.

But beyond the bowls of blueberries, kiwi and quinoa, Ms Purra’s party’s policies on immigration set her apart from any of the others.

The Finns have long had the strategic goal of leaving the European Union, but Mr Koivisto says they have not highlighted that policy during the current campaign, because of the war in Ukraine. However, he says it is still part of their programme.

“The Finns are very much supported in the countryside but also in smaller cities and by the working class in the bigger cities,” says Vesa Vares.

“They tend to collect the votes of discontent. It’s the same development that has been taking place elsewhere in Europe, for example in Sweden.”

Image caption,

Conservative leader Petteri Orpo has not ruled out working with The Finns but could also find common ground with the centre left

Whichever party comes out on top on Sunday evening is likely to have the first opportunity in forming a government.

If it is The Finns, they will immediately look for common ground with Petteri Orpo’s conservative National Coalition Party (NCP). Mr Orpo has not ruled out working with the populists but there is some doubt as to whether The Finns could muster more than 100 seats to form a majority in the 200-seat parliament.

The conservative leader, 53, has an eye on victory himself. His party is promising tax cuts and lower public spending and this time would be in a position to choose which party to work with, says Prof Vares. Mr Orpo has been careful not to attack Ms Marin in the way she has targeted him, he adds.

Some 40% of voters cast their ballots even before Sunday’s vote, and it should be clear which party has won by the end of the day. But it will take far longer for a government to be formed.