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Sanna Marin — is Finland’s millennial PM Nato’s new secret weapon?

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On May 15, Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 36, made the announcement many had been hoping for since the start of the war in Ukraine. Her country — which shares an 830-mile border with Russia and has historically been known for its military neutrality — will join Sweden in applying for membership of Nato.

“Welcome, Finland!” many of Marin’s 624,000 followers wrote under her Instagram post announcing the news, liked more than 8,000 times, as a series of images showed her smiling at the lectern in a cream blazer as she told crowds of a “historic” step for her country’s 5.5 million people.

Commentators say the decision to stand up to Russia showed a bolder, steelier side to the Finnish PM, who has — largely and mostly unfairly — until now dominated global discussion for her good looks and youth.

But the millennial mother-of-one is well accustomed to smashing expectations and stereotypes by now. The leader of the centre-left Social Democratic party broke records as the world’s youngest female head of government when she took office as PM aged just 34 in December 2019. She was also the first in her family to go to university, was raised by two mothers in what she calls a “rainbow family”, and is regularly seen breastfeeding her daughter Emma in Parliament — one of a series of feminist moves that have earned her a loyal legion of followers.

Like any leader, she’s faced her fair share of criticism, too. Since becoming prime minister, she’s been forced to apologise after being caught clubbing in Helsinki despite knowing she’d been exposed to Covid, and called “tasteless”, “ridiculous” and “attention-seeking” for posing for magazine shoot in a blazer with a plunging neckline and nothing underneath except for a necklace.

Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin

/ AP

But Marin certainly won’t be silenced by sexist comments and double standards. “In every position I’ve ever been in, my gender has always been the starting point — that I am a young woman. I hope one day it won’t be an issue… I’m no better and no worse than a middle-aged man,” she once told Vogue, talking openly about the realities of being a working mother and shared parental leave with her ex-footballer husband and partner of 18 years, Markus Räikkönen.

So how did she become PM so young and what’s she doing to “humiliate” Putin on the world stage? From her fairytale wedding in her first year in office to her awkward clubbing-gate apology last year, here’s everything you need to know about Finland’s “role model” millennial leader.

An “invisible” childhood with two mums

Marin’s was not your typical political upbringing. She was born into a working-class family in Helsinki and grew up in a rented home, her parents divorcing when she was young because of her father Lauri’s alcohol addiction.

To make ends meet, she worked in bakeries and delivered magazines and didn’t consider a career in politics in much later. “When I was in high school, I felt that the people who make the policies were quite different and came from different backgrounds than me,” she told Finnish magazine Me Naiset. “At that time I didn’t think it was possible to get involved myself.”

Marin’s mother began a relationship with another woman after the divorce, so she was brought up by same-sex parents in what she calls a “rainbow family”. But growing up in an LGBTQ+ household made her feel “invisible” at times. “We were not recognised as a true family or equal with others,” she once said of how her childhood influenced her politics. “For me, people have always been equal. It’s not a matter of opinion. That’s the foundation of everything.”

That said, Marin has never been one to let comments get to her. “I wasn’t bullied much,” she once said. “Even when I was little, I was very candid and stubborn. I wouldn’t have taken anything easy.”

Teachers at her secondary school on the outskirts of Tampere in southern Finland say she didn’t partiularly stand out in the classroom but they do remember her asking for extra homework.

She was the first in her family to go to into higher education, gaining a master’s degree in administrative science at the University of Tampere, and thanked her “demanding teachers” and the support of the welfare state for helping her during her election campaign.

“She is where she is today because of our welfare state,” says Finnish reporter Jasmin Ojalainen. “Finland has flourished into one of the most literate, democratic, developed countries in the world from very vulnerable beginnings. She has essentially done the same. She encapsulates the Finnish dream.”

For Marin, that dream became a reality at record speed. By 27, she’d already become head of the council in Finland’s third largest city, Tampere, after a “political wake-up call” during university that working hard could benefit other people, not just herself.

She became council chairman in 2013, was elected as second deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party in 2014 and was elected to parliament in 2015, as MP for the district of Pirkanmaa. By June 2019, she was transport and communications minister and by December that year she became prime minister.

Onlookers say she was refreshingly open about her ambition to make it to the top all along. Once, on a girls’ sauna night out with Marin, journalist Kristiina Tolkki says she asked the politician whether she was going to be leader of her party.

“She just looked at me as if to say, are you even asking me this?” Tolkki recalls. A few years later, she made that Finnish dream come true and took over from former lawyer Antti Rinne, 57, as the country’s 46th prime minister.

A millennial leader for female-first Finland

When Marin took over from Rinne in 2019, her gender was far from trailblazing in Finnish politics. The country had already seen two female prime ministers and women made up 47 per cent of parliamentarians. Indeed, all five of the five-party coalition she became the leader of were women — and four of them under the age of 35.

“It’s not as big a deal in Finland as it would be somewhere else,” she told Time magazine of her political sisterhood, who all made a point of supporting each other and lifting each other up on Twitter at the time, despite their political rivalries.

It was Marin’s age that caused a bigger stir than her gender. Despite other young female party leaders, her election was a landmark one by prime minister standards — and certainly on a global stage.

At 34, she was the world’s youngest head of government (33-year-old Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz stole the title when he returned to power a few weeks later) and was widely hailed as a politician for the Instagram generation thanks to her progressive social attitudes and openness about her personal life on social media.

“I’m a representative of the younger generation, and yes that’s reflected in the way I do my work and how I live,” she has said.

“I won’t change the way I behave. I’m an individual, a person, a real person, even though I’m prime minister,” she said when asked if she would give up social media at the start of her time as PM.

Her Instagram is testimony to that promise. Alongside the selfies with world leaders, Marin’s grid bears all the hallmarks of a thirty-something-year-old mother: baby bump progress, post-workout selfies, and wedding snaps with her husband Markus Räikkönen, a former Finnish association football player.

According to reports, the couple met aged 18 during their final year of college and had been together for 16 years with a two-year-old daughter, Emma Amalia Marin, when they got married during Marin’s first year in office in August 2020.

The intimate 40-person ceremony took place at Kesäranta, the Prime Minister’s official residence on the Baltic Sea in Helsinki.

“Yesterday we said to each other I will. I am happy and grateful that I get to share my life with the man I love,” Marin wrote on Instagram alongside an image of her and Räikkönen as newlyweds against a soft backdrop of trees.

“We have seen and experienced a lot together, shared joys and sorrows, and supported each other at the bottom and in the storm. We have lived together in our youth, grown up and grown older to our beloved daughter. Of all the people, you’re right for me. Thank you for being by my side.”

@sannamarin

Education, equality and buckets of empathy

Unsurprisingly given her background and Left-leaning party, Marin’s vision for her country is a liberal one.

When she was appointed, a senior MP from Finland’s centre-right National Coalition Party called Marin “the most Left-wing prime minister this country has ever had” and her policies reflect this: she’s pro-refugee, a subject that’s divided the country since the EU migrant crisis started in 2015; she’s advocating a four-day working week so people can “spend more time with their families, loved ones, hobbies and other aspects of life”; and she’s passionate about key social issues including gender equality and homelessness, which she wants to end in all its forms by 2027.

Clearly, these are issues voters care about too. Finland has been ranked as the happiest country in the world for five years in a row and regularly tops global leaderboards for issues including homelessness, ambitious climate targets, a generous welfare state and world-leading education (teachers there are required to have a master’s degree and Marin has raised the school leaving age to 18).

But it’s equality Marin has become most commonly known for. “We have worked very hard to become an equal society,” she has said. “In the future we want to do even better when it comes to equality, and not only the equality of men and women, or the genders, but also the equality of minority groups in society.”

As a woman and mother, her work on gender equality in particular has been particularly standout, the highlight being an equality programme for women and those from low-income backgrounds. So far, its policies have included closing the gender pay gap, cracking down on domestic violence and encouraging parents to share parental leave — an issue she and her husband took the lead on themselves when they took six months off work when their daughter was born.

“I think that fathers should have the same right to spend time with their children,” says Marin. “I think that’s an investment you won’t regret.

“I split the parental leave in half with my husband: I spent six months with our daughter Emma when she was born, and my husband took six months as well, when she was little. This gives a very unique bond, the parental-child relationship, that we can still see now she’s almost four years old.”

Covid, clubbing and a very controversial photo shoot

Marin’s two years in office might sound like a forward-thinking, feminist utopia, but it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. She became PM just three months before the start of the coronavirus pandemic and quickly faced the same challenges as all world leaders in how to manage it (thanks to her swift two-month lockdown, travel ban and her country’s in-house stockpile of PPE, Finland had one of Europe’s lowest incidences of the virus throughout the early days of the pandemic).

More recently, she had her own Covid-related partygate moment, though it dragged on for rather less time than Boris Johnson’s here in the UK. In December, almost exactly two years after taking office, she was forced to apologise after a gossip magazine revealed she went clubbing despite knowing she’d been exposed to Covid.

“My husband and I… had been out to eat, been shopping in town, seen friends and also spent time [enjoying] the evening and nightlife,” she wrote on Facebook after photos were published of her at a Helsinki nightclub at 3am, hours after her foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, tested positive for the virus.

Marin said she had been told by an authority that the guidelines didn’t require her to isolate, but admitted: “I should have used better judgment and double-checked the guidance given to me. I am very sorry for not understanding that I needed to do that”.

A poll commissioned by a Finnish TV channel later found two-thirds of respondents thought the PM’s night out was a “serious mistake” and figures across the world were quick to join in with the criticism — including Tesla boss Elon Musk, who shared a meme showing a man whispering into the ear of a woman in a nightclub. “So what do you do?” he asks. “I’m the prime minister of Finland,” she replies, in an image that has been retweeted more than 15,000 times.

Although Marin has since apologised and largely remains popular, sexist and ageist comments are still a daily part of the job. Just days after she was elected in 2019, Estonia’s president was forced to apologise after his country’s interior minister called Marin a “sales girl” on a radio show and her all-female coalition was taunted as being “Spice Girls” and a “lipstick cabinet”.

Last year she hit back, responding to ageist critics with an Instagram post quoting a line from a Finnish pop song: “Hey boom-boom-boomer, put some ice in your hat and cool it”. “I’m a representative of the younger generation,” she later told reporters. “And yes, that’s reflected in the way I do my work and how I live.”

Since then, the most high-profile criticism has concerned a shoot she did in 2020 for fashion magazine Trendi, in which she posed in a blazer with nothing underneath alongside an interview saying she wanted to “concentrate on policies, not my appearance”.

The image quickly sparked a global sexism row, with critics calling it “tasteless”, “inappropriate” and “attention-seeking” and others praising the PM for her bold look. The hashtag #imwithsanna began trending, with supporters posing in similar outfits in solidarity, and sharing topless photos of world leaders from Vladimir Putin to David Cameron to highlight the double standards between male and female politicians.

“Is it OK for a world leader to be sexy?”, “Finland plunges chest-first into sexism row” and “No, the Finnish prime minister has not ‘demeaned her office’ by showing some cleavage,” were among the explosion of headlines off the back of the debate.

Trendi’s editor Mari Karsikas later said that the “furore” stemmed from misogyny, adding: “Many did not see her chest at all — they saw Sanna Marin dressed in a trendy black trouser suit.”

A powerful leader through two years of tough times

It certainly hasn’t been an easy first two years in office: first, the Covid pandemic, and now steering Finland through its greatest crisis since the Second World War: the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But Marin has tackled both fearlessly so far. Covid quickly made her a hero among the Finnish people, with a striking 85 per cent of Finns supporting her handling of the pandemic, which involved the closing of schools and the introduction of a track and trace “Corona Flash” app that was downloaded by almost every other person in the country.

Marin quickly became known for her straight-talking style. “Her performance at press conferences and in parliament, has been just what works best for Finns — clear, concise, unemotional; but with an undertone of warmth,” Eddy Hawkins, a reporter for Finnish Broadcasting, said recently.

“She is a very balanced person, focused on the job, with a human touch, but without populism,” says former Finnish PM Paavo Lopponen.

In recent months, she’s faced an even bigger challenge: the Russia-Ukraine war. Finland and its neighbouring Sweden have historically remained militarily non-aligned but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted Marin and her government to tear up the country’s decades-long neutrality agreement with Russia and apply for membership of Nato.

“Today, May 15, 2022, was a historic day when we decided to take a step towards Nato as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” Marin wrote on Instagram alongside pictures of her announcing her country’s landmark step in a bold cream power suit.

REUTERS

“The Government sent a report on the matter to Parliament in accordance with the guidelines of the President of the Republic and the Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy TP-UTVA. Finland’s Nato membership would increase both Finland’s security and the stability and security of the Baltic Sea region and Northern Europe.

“Finland’s strong defense and crisis resilience also strengthens Nato and the Alliance’s joint defense. With the membership of the Defense League Nato, Finland would be part of Nato’s common defense and thus within the scope of security guarantees under Article 5 of the Treaty. As a member of Nato, Finland would be deciding on security policy issues that are important to Finland.”

Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin speaks to the press as she arrives for a European Union (EU) summit at EU Headquarters in Brussels on March 24, 2022.

/ AFP via Getty Images

Commentators say the PM came across “steely” and bold during the speech, pointing out that she is three decades younger than Putin and far more “powerful” looking — all points Russia’s leader will hate and feel “humiliated” by.

“Prayers for a new generation of global politicians,” one wrote on Twitter this week. When Finland does join Nato, its millennial leader Marin might just be the alliance’s biggest secret weapon yet.

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