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From the laudatory to the trolling, the reality is that Prime Minister Sanna Marin stands for a lot more than her policies. In this article – which featured in Mundus’ Finland Monthly Brief – we analyse the Finnish and more global fascination with the persona of Sanna Marin and its relationship to ongoing politics and policies. The occurrence of a young female political leader is still such a rarity that the person sometimes becomes the story. However, PM Marin has faced historical crises with aplomb and has a scorchingly high approval rating. Meanwhile, Finland’s national brand, spearheaded in the global political arena by Sanna Marin, has perhaps never been more valuable. It is argued that PM Marin’s popularity and media-savvy persona are politics: they aid her in her agenda to change society.
You’re a serious minded and politically engaged citizen of the world. Perhaps Finland’s NATO membership bid has caught your attention, or it may be Finland’s goal of becoming climate neutral by 2035. How has the nation handled the Covid-19 pandemic and a whole series of unprecedented crises?
You google “Sanna Marin” with the idea that Finland’s prime minister is a good place to start your research. Apart from general information, like a Wikipedia page and profiles, you’ll soon notice that much hay is made of Prime Minister Marin’s age: sworn in at the age of 34, she was the world’s youngest national leader. Gender is highly visible. A Reuters YouTube video begins with the phrase, “What’s it like to be young, female, and prime minster?” Google’s ‘related searches’ option gives you links to PM Marin’s height, the trolling catgirl episode, her clubbing habits, her famous blazer “with nothing underneath” for the cover of fashion magazine Trendi, and her net worth. Search a bit further and you’re sure to come face to face with PM Marin’s famous leather jacket, which, after its appearance in a meeting with Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, fuelled a tripling of leather jacket sales in Finland. You realise quickly that more than a politician pedalling policy, PM Marin is a cultural icon. How do you feel about a politician being famous for who she is rather than what she does? PM Marin will take it, however: politics is a game and she’s playing her hand with poker-like coolness.
General Background to PM Marin’s policies
As a politician, Sanna Marin has been known to talk about environmental issues, human rights, and education. She has made statements arguing for prohibiting the use of combustion engines. She brings new energy to politics, both on national level and especially at the party level—the Social Democrats—although this energy is also seen as a possible “creator of tension” within the government. According to scholar Anna-Reetta Kytölahti, whose master’s thesis on the media representation of PM Marin is available here in English, the issues PM Marin focused on early in her premiership can generally be considered as feminine, and this is often framed as a salient aspect in her political persona. For example, in an article analysing the speeches Marin and Antti Lindtman gave to their fellow party members before the vote for chairman of the Social Democrats upon the resignation of then Prime Minister Antti Rinne in 2019 (the winner would become prime minister), Lindtman is described as talking “a lot” about the economy and entrepreneurship. These themes were “conspicuously absent” from Marin’s speech, the article states. The article about the speeches includes three long quotes from Lindtman’s speech, followed with a short section summarising Marin’s speech: “In her speech, Marin did not mention businesses or discuss the economy but instead focused on other themes such as the welfare state, climate change, the leading of the government as well as her own leadership style. This created an impression that Marin does not care much where the money to run the welfare state comes from.” According to Kytölahti, this indicates that stereotypes related to a female politician’s competence are still visible in the media. Male politicians are seen to deal with “hard” issues such as the economy while female politicians talk about “soft” issues such as the environment and the welfare state. This dichotomy—and either/or of economy vs. care for people/nature—continues to shape Finnish politics and media representations. Of course, with hindsight we know that Marin won the party vote and became prime minister, indicating that values can trump economics. Also, the article presents a textual analysis of what both candidates talked about in their speeches and, as such, it is undeniable that Marin’s emphasis was not on the economy and business.
Burgeoning debt has been a criticism that has followed the current government like their own shadow, including from within the government coalition itself. PM Marin’s priority from early on has been on the welfare state, which, along with a series of crises, has created governmental debt. She has been criticised in the media as the “wrong kind of Social Democrat,” i.e., too ‘left’ and ‘green’. Marin has famously advocated for a four-day work week in the first weeks of her tenure. That’s not on her five-party coalition’s agenda, but she says it’s “an important question for the future.” She wants to push for shorter hours for employees as productivity improves, better protection for gig workers, and fair employment rules to stop work creeping into people’s free time.
Shorter hours would mean “people would have more time for their families and loved ones, and their hobbies and life,” PM Marin has said. “When productivity improves, ordinary workers should share in the benefits. It shouldn’t just go to line the owners’ pockets,” she continues in what, in most countries, would be a fringe left-wing statement. “One way to share productivity gains would be to cut working hours while keeping wages unchanged,” she explains as her rationale. Finns already work some of the shortest hours in the European Union, though those in full-time employment have seen little change in their hours in recent years.
Based on a comparison of the answers given by the municipal election candidates of all parties to the Helsingin Sanomat, Yle, and Sanoma ahead of the elections, PM Marin is very far from the centre of gravity of her own party and, based on her values, actually represents the left wing of the left-wing coalition. She is closer to the Left Alliance than the bulk of stances for Social Democrats.
A central issue in the analysis of PM Marin’s persona is that she is both a political “superstar”— she has over 711,000 followers on Instagram; the Social Democratic Party has less than 30,000 members—and stands for what amounts to radical policies. In other words, she is harnessing her popularity to push into the status quo and create, she hopes, meaningful change for rank-and-file Finns. You can see a generational shift in the fact that a politician gracing the pages of Vogue magazine is ideologically opposed to the norms of top-down capitalism.
Sanna Marin and Finland’s Global Brand
Politics famously divides people, even within families. However, PM Marin has earned a remarkable level of popularity from the Finnish population. According to a recent survey by Eva, as many as 51% of Finns believed the information given by politicians to citizens is reliable. The reading is the highest in Eva’s measurement history. The jump from last fall’s survey is up 26 percentage points. According to a survey by the Helsingin Sanomat recently, 67% of Finns consider Prime Minister Marin to have succeeded in her task. As recently as last December, only slightly more than half, 53%, of Finns held the same opinion. In June 2020, 80% of Finns gave PM Marin a positive assessment. Trust in the government is high and critical oversight is lukewarm, which gives PM Marin’s government a lot of leeway in pushing forward their agenda. Policy implementation and momentous decisions, in other words, such as joining NATO or curbing emissions, are possible in a way that may be envied by other political systems the world over.
According to The Guardian, Finland – which in 1906 was the first country in Europe to grant women the vote – is often regarded by those on the left as something akin to utopia – or at least a shining example of what a big-spending, socially liberal government can achieve. PM Marin is a symbol of that utopia. In large part, the world’s fascination with PM Marin stems from her being a rather typical Finn within the frame of the welfare state. In 2021, with the Covid-19 pandemic anything but over, PM Marin took a 4-week holiday to spend time with her young child. Unlike former President Trump’s infamous golf outings, PM Marin’s choice to step away from power, responsibility, and work was framed in the world’s media as a lesson in work-life balance.
The publicity that PM Marin has received in the world is generally seen as very positive by Finns. Finland gets the best possible free advertising in the world. Touchingly, as a symbol of a small-country complex, one analyst said that Elon Musk now knows that Finland exists, and this may turn into investments. Historically, Finnish politicians have not been known globally, apart from President Urho Kekkonen, who was seen through his role in managing the Soviet Union. In a short time, PM Marin has gained exceptional attention in the world’s media: apart from her feature in the fashion magazine Vogue, she has been featured in Time magazine as one of the leaders of the future. In 2020, PM Marin was on the list of the BBC’s 100 Women, was selected by Forbes as ranking 85th on the list of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, and became a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.
Even the scandals that arose from PM Marin clubbing until 4am after being in contact with someone with the coronavirus, which was noticed by the world (well-known American TV show hosts made jokes about it in their programmes) can be seen as raising Finland’s global brand. With a young and representative female prime minister, Finland is perceived as a modern Nordic country, where even the prime minister can sometimes enjoy life, celebrate, and party until 4am. Young adults who have experienced the epidemic that swept the world can relate to the prime minister and her struggle to balance ‘normal life’ and the limitations imposed by the pandemic. Mistakes, after all, are our common denominator. In a blog post, a self-described “right-wing liberal” concedes that he hasn’t supported all of PM Marin’s governmental policies but, as a promoter of Finland on the global stage, he has nothing but praise. This is indicative of how Sanna Marin’s persona, and the global media attention, has real-world political effects. Remarkably, the radically left politician Sanna Marin has brought many across the political spectrum into her orbit.
Gender and sexism
Many scholarly studies have shown that female politicians are either underrepresented, presented in a negative light, or get their voices heard only regarding ‘feminine’ issues like education or family. Furthermore, female politicians often face the so-called gender double bind: a contradiction between how women are expected to perform in leadership roles and how they are supposed to act as women. Recently, harassment in politics came up in Finland when women talked about the behaviour of MP Wille Rydman (National Coalition Party) in an extensive article by the Helsingin Sanomat. PM Marin commented on the theme during Yle’s prime minister’s interview session. She said that as a young woman she experienced harassment and harassment in politics. “I think it’s a common experience for many young people, unfortunately. I have also experienced inappropriate behaviour at various party events,” said PM Marin. Politics, the article shows, continues to be a hazardous atmosphere for females in Finland.
Research by scholars Inari Sakki and Jari Martikainen, available here in English, examines online misogynist discourse related to PM Marin’s image in Trendi magazine. They identified four affective-discursive practices in online commentaries: an immoral woman, incompetent woman, calculating woman, and inferior woman. Misogynist discourse related to Sanna Marin took the form of a moral act, drew from stereotypical images of women as less rational than men, appeared as accusations targeted at Marin for playing the gender card as a political tactic, and constructed an image of Marin and female politicians as objects of men’s sexual desires and as inferior to men. These affective-discursive practices mobilised dehumanising discourse ranging from milder forms of derogation, scorn, and other-condemning practices to harsher forms of belittlement, humiliation, and animalistic dehumanisation.
Scholar Ella Liimatainen has looked at Tweets concerning the coalition government’s female leaders, which have emphasised the inexperience of the “girl government.” Tweets containing such speech imply that girlhood and femininity are the primary reasons for Marin’s government’s bad qualities, decisions, results, and other ways of acting in politics. The fact that Marin’s government has a female majority is brought up by talking about a girl or woman government and, in connection with it, using adjectives such as “incompetent”, “miserable”, “bad”, and “stupid”. Also, news with a negative tone, for example about high unemployment figures in Finland and Covid-19 pandemic decision-making, is simply justified by the existence of a female government.
For many observers, however, PM Marin is a symbol of progression and hope due to her age and gender. “It’s a trap!” she says, of the expectation placed upon her premiership. “If I don’t make it, if I fail – because I’m a politician, and as we all know, things don’t always go the way we want – I don’t want it to be interpreted as, ‘Of course she failed because she was a young woman.’”
There is a general conflation in the global media with PM Marin’s female gender and her progressive politics. However, as pointed out in The Guardian, a female leader is certainly no guarantee that a country, or a party, has a progressive outlook. The UK’s two female prime ministers have been Conservatives. Angela Merkel is a Christian Democrat. The French far right is led by Marine Le Pen. Neither are female voters or politicians necessarily any more liberal, social democratic, or environmentalist than men. While Ukip and the Brexit party have never been as popular with UK women as they are with men, national populist parties in continental Europe do not have the same problem, and 53% of white women in the US voted for President Trump.
Trust is the basis of Finnish society. Generally, Finns assume that the state is doing, or trying to do, what is best for the largest number of citizens it can. Sanna Marin has garnered a remarkable amount of trust in her premiership, which is manifested in the popularity of her persona both domestically and globally. The Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and Finland’s impending NATO partnership have favoured politicians: leaders are looked toward in times of insecurity.
However, critics, such as the prolific Janne Saarikivi, argue that “when you have to take care of your own rights, obedience is not a virtue.” Trust is what makes the Finnish system work; however, when it comes to politics and our common future, critical debate and friction between opposing worldviews is necessary and should be sought. In the words of Saarikivi, “We are indeed living in a time of post-politics, and not just in the US. The prime minister’s Instagram and leather jacket are more exciting than Finland’s constitution. Even factual criticism of the government is easily dismissed as ‘misogyny’”. The conflation of a cultural icon and a politician blurs the lines between personality and values, on the one hand, and the expediency of policy on the other, Saarikivi argues. In the words of Enoch Powell, the UK politician, “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” As much as we may hold PM Marin’s persona in esteem, politics is not a fandom but an arena for cold-headed analysis of the issues before us. As is made clear by PM Marin’s many interviews, she would be the first one to agree.
Saska Saarikoski, head of editorials and opinions at Helsingin Sanomat, comments that PM Marin’s relationship with the public is exceptional. In Finland, things revolve around the prime minister, so the prime minister is always in the middle of everything. As a performer, Marin is excellent, he says. As a person, however, Marin remains distant: few know what she really thinks. For example, the prime minister has opened the development of her position on NATO quite cautiously. In an exceptional TV programme, ‘Yökylässä’ [Spending the Night; even if you don’t understand Finnish, the intimacy and human approachability of this programme will astound you], reporter Maria Veitola spends the night at PM Marin’s residence Kesäranta. PM Marin states that her personal feelings or thoughts are not important; as a politician, it is the harnessing of power to create meaningful change that is at issue. From this perspective, which PM Marin is very forthright about, playing the public opinion card is not dishonest but just good politicking.
However, Saarikoski continues by saying that PM Marin doesn’t need to open up about her thinking, because she has become a political superstar, whose interviews are queued up by Finnish and international media. Marin sells magazines and brings viewers. The Prime Minister can afford to choose. That’s why she chooses good publicity and doesn’t take any risks. The most risk-free way to handle publicity, Saarikoski argues, is when you handle the information yourself. The status of a superstar with her own media channel makes PM Marin independent. Marin has her own supporters who support her strongly and often specifically as a person. That may be one of the reasons why government responsibility has not consumed PM Marin’s popularity in the same way as prime ministers in general, Saarikoski says. Marin’s popularity has at least partially separated from the popularity of SDP and the government. PM Marin is a politician and a prominent power user, but for many she is something else: an idol. Parties and members are the old way of doing politics, idols and fans are the new way. The era of such idol politics is probably just beginning, Saarikoski says. Next spring, several high-profile influencers may enter parliament. It’s a confusing situation for traditional media, Saarikoski says: are the rules of political publicity or celebrity media applied to social media characters? Under the protection of artificial closeness through social media, the politician in power can isolate herself much further from other people than traditional politicians, who are forced to interact with people in other ways than through selfies or tweets. According to Saarikoski, PM Marin is a star – as big, as bright, as distant.
While researching this report, it has become clear that PM Marin, while being an adept utiliser of publicity, is primarily concerned with policy advancements. If her popularity aids in this mission, so be it: that is the nature of power. Perhaps the articles cited above most clearly indicate a cultural and generational dissonance: being a popular politician is, in itself, seen as something suspect. The question is, however: to what ends is that popularity put? In PM Marin’s case, it makes the messy arena of politics just that much less antagonistic. This does not mean that her policies should not be questioned. As a career politician and believer in the democratic process, Sanna Marin expects to be held accountable.