Magazine article The Spectator

Finns Ain’t What They Used to Be

Magazine article The Spectator

Finns Ain’t What They Used to Be

Article excerpt


Sanna Marin is the world’s new feminist political icon. At the age of 34, she’s just been appointed the prime minister of Finland after a power struggle in the five-party coalition government that forced Antti Rinne out of office only six months after he won the general election. Marin isn’t just young and a woman — she was brought up by two mothers in a small town south of Tampere, an industrial region that isn’t known for championing progressive values. That backstory has earned her the plaudits of feminists on both the left and the right. To the Daily Telegraph, she’s a ‘trailblazer’. For the Guardian, her coalition of women-led parties reminds us ‘that another politics is possible’.

The Finns, however, are far less excited. Women politicians are hardly a novelty in Helsinki: they have had two female prime ministers and one female president in the past 20 years. Three of the four last cabinets had female majorities, and there was already a strong group of young women in the cabinet before Marin moved into the Government Palace. They are still around. The education ministry is run by Li Andersson, 32, who has led the Finnish left since she was 29. Maria Ohisalo, Green party leader, is 34 years old and heads up the Home Office. And the centre of political attention in the past weeks has not been Sanna Marin but Katri Kulmani, the 32-year-old Centre party leader who led the campaign to depose the last PM. She is now the new finance minister.

Identity politics hasn’t really taken hold in Finland. In Helsinki this week, several commentators were alarmed at the ‘Behold! Women!’ tone of the global media coverage. One Finnish politician, a darling of the European left, even complained that ‘It’s unfair that she is praised only for the fact that she is young, a woman and has lesbian parents, which are all factors that Sanna couldn’t influence herself.’

She has a point. Marin’s background and gender are far less interesting than her character and accomplishments: she is an inspiring person who has packed an extraordinary career into just a few years. She was at the helm of her party’s election campaign earlier this year and has served as a minister for transport and communication under Rinne. Before that she ran the city council of Tampere, Finland’s largest city outside the capital region, for four years.

Her problem now is that, while Finns like her profile, they’re not wildly keen on the government she now leads. Her party, the centre-left Social Democrats, has been tanking in the polls (which partly explains why her predecessor was dispatched so quickly). They won less than a fifth of the vote back in April, which was still enough to lead a five-party coalition. Then came a pledge to make Finland carbon-neutral by 2035, but Finns baulked when they saw the bill for having the most ambitious climate target in the world. A recent postal strike made the government look amateurish. To this we can add unemployment standing at twice the level of other industrial eurozone countries like Germany and the Netherlands. …

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