Youth leader

Finland’s leader has a side of steel: How the world’s youngest (and most modern) prime minister

A few years ago, during a girls’ night out at the sauna – well, that’s what we do in Finland – a journalist asked Sanna Marin if she was going to be the leader of her party, the social -democrats.

“She just looked at me as if to say, are you asking me that?” remembers Kristiina Tolkki. In a situation where most budding politicians would try to hide their ambition, Ms. Marin was refreshingly simple.

Two years ago – at 34 – she realized that ambition and became the world’s youngest prime minister.

Now it’s up to her to step onto the world stage alongside Boris Johnson, who struck a historic deal with Finland (and Sweden) earlier this week to help defend themselves in the event of an attack by the Russia.

Having a much bigger – and terrifying – neighbour, Finland has long pursued a policy of neutrality. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed everything.

Even before the start of the conflict, when Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border but the Kremlin denied any plans for an invasion, Ms. Marin broke new ground in her New Year’s speech.

Finland has the right to join NATO and should consider it, she said. Russian media were outraged, with critics saying “Moscow was stabbed in the back”.

The Russian crisis has exposed a steely side to Finland’s prime minister who had previously drawn the most attention – perhaps unfairly – for his youth, good looks and progressive social policies.

Some say that if the Love Actually creator were to write the character of a 21st century female prime minister (similar to Hugh Grant’s dancing prime minister), he would find someone who looks a lot like Ms Marin.

Now the leader of 5.5million people, she was raised in difficult circumstances by her mother, who split from Ms Marin’s alcoholic father, Lauri, at a young age.

Her mother’s next partner was female, meaning Ms Marin grew up in an all-female environment – ​​or a ‘rainbow household’, as she herself later put it.

Struggling financially, the family often survived on allowances and Ms Marin had to work from an early age, working in a bakery and delivering magazines.

And she was far from a child prodigy. Pasi Kervinen, her secondary school teacher in the small town of Pirkkala – on the outskirts of Tampere, southern Finland – told the BBC she was an “average” student, although she sometimes asked for extra homework .

During her final year of studies, she met her partner Markus Raikkonen, a professional footballer who she would date for the next 16 years before getting married in 2020.

Graduating in 2004 at the age of 19, her grades were good enough to get her into Tampere University – the first in her family to go – where she studied administrative science.

It was during her studies that she had her “political awakening”, when she recalled a sudden realization that hard work could not only benefit her own life, but the life of others. those around him – the poor and the women, in particular.

Her affiliation with the Social Democratic Party she leads today began with her joining in 2006 and saw her become its first vice-president from 2010 to 2012.

Marin’s first foray into active politics actually began with a defeat: a defeat in the Tampere City Council elections when she was just 22 years old.

But in the next election, in 2012, she won – and within months she was promoted to chair of the board, a position she held from 2013 to 2017.

During this period, she was also elected second vice-president of the Social Democratic Party (2014) and elected to the Finnish Parliament as a member of the Pirkanmaa electoral district (2015).

Winning a second council election in 2017, she came to public attention due to popular videos of her council chair sessions that appeared on YouTube.

She also won a second election to parliament in 2019, then took her first really high-profile job as transport and communications minister in June of that year.

This role brought Marin onto the world stage, representing Finland at European summits of other transport ministers.

It was during her first trip to Brussels, in December 2019, that the crisis broke out that would propel her to the top of politics.

Marin actually had to leave that summit shortly after Antti Rinne – the Social Democrat leader who had been prime minister for just six months – summoned her to her home to help respond to a crisis involving a labor strike. posts.

Rinne eventually lost her coalition partner’s trust and was forced to resign, with Ms Marin taking her place at the helm of a new five-party coalition led entirely by women – only one of whom was over 35 in the election. ‘era.

Politician of the Instagram generation – she posted pictures of herself breastfeeding and pasta recipes – Ms Marin’s policies have included raising the school leaving age to 18 and extending parental leave .

Inspired by her own upbringing, her centerpiece of legislation was an equality program aimed at benefiting women and people from low-income backgrounds.

So far, the program has included policies aimed at encourage parents to share family responsibilities fairly, curb domestic violence, reduce the gender pay gap and improve the education of children from disadvantaged and immigrant backgrounds.

His handling of the pandemic has won him plaudits and a majority of public support, although some accuse him of being too dogmatic and unwilling to compromise.

Somehow, amid the turmoil of her first year in office, she found time to wed Markus – with whom she has two-year-old daughter Emma – in a ceremony held during his Prime Minister’s retreat on the Baltic Sea in 2020.

Shortly after taking over as head of Finland’s coalition government, she caused a stir by posing for a magazine photo shoot in 2020 in a smart jacket – with nothing underneath.

Some thought the photo eroded her credibility, but #imwithsanna quickly took off online, with legions of fans praising her style.

“In every position I’ve held, my gender has always been the starting point – that I’m a young woman,” she told Vogue.

“I hope one day it won’t be a problem…I’m no better or worse than a middle-aged man.”

Now faced with another crisis of an entirely different nature – an aggressive and bellicose Putin who violated international norms and security guarantees given to Ukraine by invading – Ms Marin has once again stepped up her efforts.

Tearing up a decades-long neutrality agreement with Russia that has been in effect since the Winter War – Moscow’s ill-fated attempt to invade Finland shortly before the outbreak of World War II – Ms Marin charted a course towards the NATO.

Speaking alongside Finland’s prime minister on Thursday, she said unequivocally that it was in her country’s interest to apply to join the alliance “within days”.

Acceptance is all but guaranteed after Jens Stoltenburg – the NATO chief – said Finland and Sweden would be welcomed “with open arms”.

This decision represents a complete overhaul of Europe’s security architecture and marks the start of a new phase in post-war relations.

For Finland, the stakes could hardly be higher. Predictably, Russia reacted with fury – threatening to immediately cut off the gas supply, which could drag out the country’s industry and turn off the lights.

Ultimately, the fear is that Russia will invade. It seems unlikely with his army engaged in fighting in Ukraine, but this war will end sooner or later – and Putin is known to hold a grudge.

Such a war would be devastating for Finland, which shares a nearly indefensible 800-mile border with Russia, meaning any fighting would more than likely take place on its territory.

Nevertheless, Ms. Marin made her determination clear.

“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” she said in a joint statement with the prime minister yesterday.

“We hope that the national steps still necessary to make this decision will be taken quickly in the coming days.”

It remains to be seen whether the bet will pay off.