Finland’s Sanna Marin faces tough challenge in re-election bid

Three parties are in a neck-and-neck race to win a majority of Finland’s 200-seat parliament and form a new government.

A voter casts her ballot at a polling center during the general elections in Finland in Helsinki, on April 2, 2023. - Finland votes on April 2, 2023, in legislative elections that could see the country take a dramatic turn to the right, as centre-right and anti-immigration parties vie to unseat Social Democratic Prime Minister. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)
A voter casts her ballot at a polling centre during the general elections in Finland, in Helsinki [Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP]

Voters in Finland are casting their ballots to elect members of a new parliament in what opinion polls suggest will be a tough competition for Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s Social Democrats Party (SDP) to keep its post.

More than 2,400 candidates from 22 parties are vying for the 200 seats in the Nordic country’s parliament, the Eduskunta, on Sunday. Polling stations opened at 9am (06:00 GMT).

Polls close at 8pm (17:00 GMT). Initial results based on early votes are expected to be released immediately after polls closed and a preliminary final result should be available at about midnight on Monday.

Marin remains popular at home but her party’s views on the Finnish economy, which emerged as the main campaign theme, were being challenged by two main opponents: the centre-right National Coalition Party led by Petteri Orpo and the right-wing populist The Finns Party, which is led by Riikka Purra.

Recent polls indicated each of the three parties could take about 20 percent of the vote. If that happens, no party would be in position to form a government alone; whichever one wins the most votes is expected to begin talks in the next few days on forming a governing coalition.

Marin, who at 37 is one of Europe’s youngest leaders, took the leadership of the SDP in 2019 and has since then guided the country throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, for which she has received praise, and piloted the country towards NATO membership.

Her staunch support of Ukraine in the last year has increased her international visibility. She has become known for her straightforward politics and modern feminist ideals. Videos of her enjoying her private life have also made global headlines attracting the sympathy from those who see her as a role model for a new generation of young politicians, and vocal criticism from some more conservative members of the opposition.

“Of course we hope that the Social Democrats will win this election … It’s so important because we want to stay an open society. We also want to work together internationally. We want to build a better green sustainable future where people have the same opportunities in life,” Marin told the Associated Press while campaigning Saturday in central Helsinki.

Chairperson of the Finns Party Riikka Purra, Chairperson of the SDP and current Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Chairperson of the National Coalition Party Petteri Orpo pose before the election debate, arranged by media company MTV, in Helsinki, Finland March 29, 2023. Lehtikuva/Markku Ulander via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. FINLAND OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN FINLAND.
Chairperson of the Finns Party Riikka Purra, Chairperson of the SDP and current Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Chairperson of the National Coalition Party Petteri Orpo pose before an election debate arranged by media company MTV, in Helsinki, Finland [File: Lehtikuva/Markku Ulander via Reuters]

Voters are concerned about how the government plans to tackle inflation and address climate change, experts said, as inflation rose to 8.8 percent in February, driven by higher mortgage interest rates and pricier heating bills.

As in the rest of Europe, the cost-of-living crisis is a worry. Moreover, at the end of January, Finland’s national debt stood at about 144bn euros ($157bn). Debt started rising during the pandemic and after Russia invaded Ukraine. It increased with the government borrowing more money to fortify its defence systems.

“The most important thing in the next government is to fix our economy, push economic growth, balance public economy. And the second very important issue is to build up NATO-Finland,” Orpo told the AP during a campaign event in Espoo, just outside the capital, on Saturday.

Purra stressed that the The Finns would focus on shaping Finland’s migration, climate, criminal and energy policies if the populist party become a partner in the next government.

“And we also want to tighten up our attitude towards the European Union,” Purra said during a campaign event in the municipality of Kirkkonummi, her home district located some 45km (28 miles) west of Helsinki.

Finland, which is expected to join NATO in the coming weeks, is a European Union member with a population of 5.5 million.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies