Four years after she became the world’s youngest prime minister, Finland’s Sanna Marin faces a battle to keep her job on Sunday in an unpredictable election so tight that it could be won by any of the country’s three main parties.
Marin, now 37, took the reins of the Social Democratic party (SDP) – and the Finnish premiership – in 2019 and has since piloted the traditionally non-aligned Nordic country through the Covid pandemic and to the brink of Nato membership.
Along the way her determination to enjoy her private social life has made global headlines, earning her fans who see her as a role model for a new generation of young female leaders, and critics who believe she has behaved inappropriately and irresponsibly.
Amid a looming recession and surging inflation, however, her rightwing opponents have accused her of borrowing excessively and failing to rein in public spending, and a final poll before voting day showed the SDP narrowly trailing its two main rivals.
The poll for the public broadcaster Yle, with a margin of error of two percentage points, put the conservative National Coalition party (NCP) on 19.8%, the far-right, nationalist Finns party on 19.5%, and Marin’s Social Democrats on 18.7%.
“At this stage, nobody can know what order the three leading parties will finish in on Sunday,” said Jenni Karimäki, a political historian at the University of Helsinki. “There’s barely a percentage point between them. It could be any of them.”
Karimäki said Marin – who apologised and took a drug test last year, but also defended her right to party, after photos and video emerged of her drinking and dancing with friends – remained more popular than other leaders and her party.
“It is unusual for the party of the outgoing prime minister to still be doing so well this close to an election and that is at least partly because of her popularity,” Karimäki said. “She’s an asset to the SDP. The prime minister’s party usually suffers more.”
A survey for the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper in December found that 64% of respondents felt Marin had done a “very” or “fairly” good job as prime minister. The approval rating even higher among women, at 69%.
But in a campaign focused on the economy and the cost of living crisis, claims of fiscal irresponsibility and calls for deep cuts to restore the state finances from the opposition leaders Petteri Orpo of the NCP and Riikka Purra of the Finns have hit home.
Marin argues spending on education and public health services is key to economic growth, which she says is what will help Finland avoid further borrowing. She would prefer to raise taxes than cut spending. The NCP has proposed painful welfare cuts.
The Finns party, which was in government for the first time from 2015 to 2017, says its priorities are to cut immigration from non-EU developing countries, which Purra has described as “harmful”, and postpone carbon neutrality past 2035.
“It’s doing well under a relatively new leader,” said Emilia Palonen, a populism expert at the University of Helsinki. “An ethno-nationalist, anti-migrant, radical right party that has streamlined its ideological line and draws an anti-establishment vote.”
The leader of the winning party has the first shot at forming a new government and normally becomes prime minister, but coalition talks this time are expected to be long and tortuous with several parties having ruled out options, especially with the Finns.
“A lot looks like it will depend on the scores of the medium and smaller parties,” Palonen said. “Which of them do well enough to make up the numbers for a majority, and whether or not those that do are prepared to strike a deal with the winners.”
Marin’s SDP and two of her current five-party coalition, the Greens and the Left Alliance, have said they will not go into government with the Finns, which Marin earlier this year described as “openly racist”.
Of Marin’s two other partners, the Swedish People’s party has said it is “very unlikely” to partner with the far-right party, while the once-powerful, agrarian Centre party, whose vote has plunged in recent years, will not join any coalition resembling the current one.
The NCP, for its part, has not excluded any combination, saying it will wait to see the results. If it finishes first, it could put together a right-leaning “blue-black” coalition with the Finns or choose to pursue a broad “blue-red” alliance with the SDP.
As many as 10 parties could win seats in the 200-seat parliament. Polls open at 9am local time on Sunday, and early results from the 31% of voters who cast their ballots in advance will be released at 8pm when polling stations close. Final results should be clear by midnight.