How did Finland’s Sanna Marin become the world’s youngest prime minister?
Her ascent – and that of her young, female-dominated cabinet – is a victory for youth and vigour
Finland’s new prime minister Sanna Marin. “I want to build a society where every child can become anything and every person can live and grow in dignity.” Photograph: Kimmo Brandt/EPA
The ascent of Finland’s Sanna Marin to become the world’s youngest prime minister may be a victory for youth and vigour, but what Finns really want from her is “sisu” – the Finnish word for the quiet, steely stoicism and courage that gets things done without a fuss.
Marin’s appointment and the fact that her government is made up of 12 women, some younger than herself and among them four party leaders, and seven men attracted attention from around the world, but it came as no shock to the Finns.
The Social Democrat may be young, but she is no political ingenue; she cut her political teeth as chair of the Tampere city council, and YouTube clips of her steering sometimes heated council meetings played a large part in her rise to national prominence.
She took over as de facto leader of the Social Democrats when her predecessor as prime minister, Antti Rinne, fell ill, and she performed well in the parliamentary elections in April as the party gained six seats and was the biggest in parliament.
As a result, Marin was appointed minister for transport and communications before replacing Rinne when he was pushed out by their coalition partners.
“I want to build a society where every child can become anything and every person can live and grow in dignity,” she said on Twitter as her appointment was confirmed. But in some ways Finland is already there.
Marin is something of a poster child for the egalitarian Nordic model of social democracy. Raised by her mother and her female partner, she comes from what she calls a “rainbow family” and moved around a lot as a child.
She worked in a bakery and as a cashier while taking advantage of Finland’s generous education system to get her degree in Administrative Science. She joined the youth wing of the Social Democratic party and stood for election in Tampere in 2008, but failed to get elected.
Undeterred, she stood again in 2012 and was successful, rising to chair of the city council a year later at the age of 28. Despite her humble beginnings and relative lack of experience, she has now reached the pinnacle of Finnish politics.
“This is the biggest political event in Finland in many years,” says Maria Bäck, lecturer in political science at the University of Helsinki.
“I’m not that surprised that she has become prime minister – it’s probably down to this Nordic model of equality, both economically and socially, and It is a little bit special now. Apart from the prime minister being a young woman, we have several other young women at the top of politics.
“It’s also interesting for the Social Democrats, because their support is mostly among those who are older, so to have young women coming up as leaders in the Social Democrats and the Centre Party is quite special, it’s clear that these parties both need and demand change in their structures, to try in some way to take into account changes in society and attract younger voters,” she added.
The 34-year-old Marin takes the reins in this country of 5.5 million at a difficult time. Labour disputes have led to some of the country’s biggest companies grinding to a halt as strikes break out.
Then there is the constant battle to continue to deliver the high level of services expected by the people along with balancing the books in a nation that has struggled to recover since the global downturn in 2008.
Part of the political instability in Finland can be put down to the arrival on the scene of the right-wing populist and Eurosceptic Finns Party as a force in the last decade, an event that has put the cat among the political pigeons both in government and opposition parties.
The more traditional parties like the Social Democrats, the Centre and the Agrarian Party are essentially conflict-averse, and for years have put their differences aside to form coalitions for the common good. The Finns Party seemingly have no time for such niceties.
“All of the traditional parties have lost support, some more, some less, to the Finns Party and they are struggling to win back their voters,” says Jenni Karimäki, a colleague of Maria Bäck in the political science department at the University of Helsinki.
“This is especially hard to do as a government party since traditionally governing parties tend to lose support no matter who is in the opposition.”
Recent opinion polls show that the Finns Party are now the most popular in the country.
“This presents an ideological challenge – is it possible to co-operate with the Finns Party in the future? To make them take part in government responsibly seems like the only way to decrease their support, but is a coalition government with them really a possibility, especially ideologically?” says Karimäki.
With the Finns Party continuing to ignore the previous tradition of consensus politics, the challenge for Marin and her cabinet is to return to the stable politics and “sisu” that has characterised previous Finnish governments.
“Now that we have a young, knowledgeable, ambitious and quite tough prime minster who is a woman, I hope she gets the room she needs to work, and that she doesn’t feel she needs to prove that she can handle it all the time, because all eyes are on her,” says Bäck.
Marin has broken much new ground, but she is not the first female prime minster in Finnish history – Anneli Jäätteenmäki had a 68-day stint as premier in 2003 and Mari Kiviniemi enjoyed exactly a year in power from 2010 to 2011 – but the composition of her cabinet is something new. The question is how long it will last.
“The Finnish parliament has now the highest number of female MPs ever, so I would like to think that that was a sign of an attitudinal change, and the composition of the Marin cabinet is a continuation of this trajectory,” says Karimäki.
“Political representation has become more diverse – however, time will tell whether this is a permanent state of affairs, or if we will see a backlash in the future.”