President Sauli Niinisto greeting Sanna Marin before her first meeting as prime minister of Finland. Credit…Lehtikuva
Sanna Marin becomes the youngest premier in the world. She leads a coalition headed entirely by women
When Sanna Marin was sworn into office on Tuesday. At 34, she has become the world’s youngest prime minister, and her country’s youngest ever, a fact that drew international attention this week when her party elected her as Finland’s next leader at a difficult time — as Finland is hit by strikes and populist nationalism looms over its politics.
But while the world is just becoming acquainted with the new, left-leaning leader, Ms Marin has been a rising star on Finland’s political scene and in her Social Democratic Party since first entering Parliament in 2015.
Ms Marin heads a government that is remarkably female and young. The other four parties in the government are led by women, three of whom are younger than 35.
Her new finance minister is even younger. Katri Kulmuni, 32, is one of four other female party leaders in the five-party ruling centre-left coalition. Only one of them is over 35.
Their appointments are an attempt to inject some new blood into a demanding body politic as their parties flounder in the polls, just six months after election victory.
For many, she was a natural choice for her new role.
“She doesn’t come out of nowhere,” said Johanna Kantola, a professor of gender studies at Finland’s Tampere University. “And she is quite well-liked.”
She takes up the leadership at a volatile, polarized time in Finnish politics. In elections in April, the Social Democrats only narrowly edged out the right-wing, populist Finns Party, winning the premiership for the first time in 16 years, but polls indicate that the Finns Party has gained in popularity since then.
Who is Sanna Marin
Sanna Marin comes from a modest background. Her parents separated when she was a child, and she was raised by her mother and her mother’s female partner. Ms Marin describes herself as being from a “rainbow family” and told a magazine she often felt invisible because she couldn’t talk openly about her family.
“That was something that couldn’t be discussed,” she said. “It is only now in the 21st century that the debate about rainbow families has begun to be fairly open.” The family faced financial problems.
In a blog, Ms Marin describes how she got a job in a bakery at 15 and distributed magazines for pocket money during high school.
She was the first person in her family to finish high school and go to university.
Ms Marin gained popularity as head of the Tampere City Council from 2013 until 2017 when YouTube videos of her leading contentious and often heated meetings drew national attention.
“The style with which she managed the whole situation, she’s been quite admired for that,” Ms Kantola said. “She is very centered on policies and issues, so she wants to talk about policies, not draw attention to herself.”
Elected to Parliament in 2015, Ms Marin was re-elected in May 2019 and has served as the Minister of Transport and Communications.
Ms Marin is considered left-leaning, even within her party, and climate change, equality and social welfare are at the top of her agenda. On Tuesday, in a post on Twitter, she wrote about her commitment to building a better society in Finland.
“Finland will not be finished in four years, but it can get better,” Ms Marin wrote in the post. “That’s what we’re working on. I want to build a society where every child can become anything and every person can live and grow in dignity.”
“When I was in high school, I felt that the people in politics were quite different and came from different backgrounds than me,” she told a magazine.
She now lives in Tampere with her husband and their young daughter and said her family dynamic has shaped her political life.
“For me, human rights and equality of people have never been questions of opinion but the basis of my moral conception,” she said in a statement on her website. “I joined politics because I want to influence how society sees its citizens and their rights.”
Ms Kantola, the gender studies professor, noted a sharp contrast between the new government and the older, male-dominated center-right government in power from 2015 to 2019.
“It kind of took us back to 1980 in a way, and it’s not just this political representation side, that they were old white men, but it was also the kinds of politics that they did,” she said. “It was a very bad time for gender equality.”
Turnout this year was the highest in decades, almost 73 percent. Ms Kantola said a backlash against the previous government drove a surge in voters electing younger, more liberal and often female lawmakers.
“It doesn’t take away the fact that obviously there are people in Finland that are not happy to have an all-female leadership of the government,” she said. “It’s a very strong contradiction.”
Jenni Karimaki, a senior researcher at the Center for Parliamentary Studies at the University of Turku, said Ms Marin’s rise could aid her party, which has struggled since taking the helm of government.
“Politics is getting harder,” says Kristiina Tolkki, a political journalist from Finland’s national broadcaster YLE. “We need some younger people who can be there 24/7, some fresh faces, always ready to react and not say anything stupid.”
The new government is also set to have 12 female and seven male ministers, a high gender ratio even for a country which in 1907 became the first in the world to elect women to parliament.
Through the ranks
Ms Marin went into politics at the age of 20 and two years later was already running for a council seat in Tampere, a city north of Helsinki.
She wasn’t elected, but within just five years she had not just won a seat but become council leader, aged just 27.
She rose quickly through the ranks of the Social Democrats (SDP), Finland’s main centre-left party, becoming an MP in 2015.
She is seen as being a left-winger in the party, and a strong advocate of Finland’s welfare state.
Kristiina Tolkki says her rise to the top was almost inevitable.
“I met her at a ladies’ sauna night some years ago and asked her if she was going to be leader,” she says. “She just looked at me as if to say – are you even asking me this?”
As an MP she quickly caught the attention of party leader Antti Rinne, becoming his deputy and essentially his favourite.
Last winter, Mr Rinne fell ill with pneumonia on holiday and was later diagnosed with coronary thrombosis, meaning he was out of action as his party geared up for an election campaign.
This was a chance for Ms Marin, then still only a first-term MP, to shine. After several months with her at the helm, Mr Rinne returned from sick leave to lead his party to victory.
The mother of a 22-month-old daughter, she has dismissed questions about her suitability for the job.
“I have never thought about my age or gender. I think of the reasons I got into politics and those things for which we have won the trust of the electorate,” she told reporters after being chosen for prime minister.
But she takes office with more strikes threatened, and production expected to come to a halt at some of Finland’s largest companies.
Ms Marin is Finland’s third female prime minister. The first, Anneli Jaatteenmaki, lasted barely more than two months in 2003 and the second, Mari Kiviniemi, was only in power for a year (2010-11).
But by riding a popular wave just six months into the coalition’s four-year term, the 34-year-old can surely expect to do better.–Courtesy: NYT/BBC