. A Finnish track and trace app also proved vital in controlling infections due to the country’s high digitization rates. As a result of Finland’s widespread desire to comply with official recommendations, almost every other Finn downloaded Corona Flash in 2020.
Finland is at a crossroads in its history. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Nordic nation has abandoned its decades-long neutrality stance and has begun pursuing NATO membership. In this new phase of the country’s history, Sanna Marin is the bold leader who is leading it forward.
In times of crisis, true leaders are forged, as the saying goes. Accordingly, Sanna Marin may go down in history as a legendary figure. There is no doubt that the Finnish Prime Minister is no stranger to being in the spotlight. Sanna Marin became the world’s youngest leader at 34 when she took office in December 2019. A new era of leadership for a stylish and progressive Finland was ushered in with the record-breaking achievement, hailed as a feminist victory. It was refreshing to see Marin’s coalition government, comprised of five female-led parties, as an alternative to the status quo. Four of the five party chiefs were under 35 at the time of Marin’s appointment, so Finland would not only be governed by an all-female coalition but also by a remarkably young generation of leadership. Celebrations were short-lived after the achievement.
Marin found herself in crisis mode just weeks after taking on the new PM role. The coronavirus outbreak was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, putting mounting pressure on international leaders to protect citizens’ lives and livelihoods. Marin had a plan of action for keeping her country safe even though she barely had her feet under the table. In this crisis, Marin’s fresh perspective may have given her the upper hand. This new leader faced an unprecedented challenge.
Marin is a welcome exception to what many people perceive as a stale, male-dominated, pale political world. She is a typical millennial, and her social media posts have earned her a large following, resulting in some newspapers awarding her the title “the leader of the Instagram generation.” Marin stands out more than just because she’s young, female, and uses social media.
Unlike most politicians, Marin did not follow the traditional path to politics. The Finnish prime minister told Time magazine shortly after her appointment that growing up in a small industrial town in southwest Finland, “politicians and politics seemed very far away.” Growing up, Marin had a somewhat tricky start in life.
Like many Finns, Marin’s family has a lot of sad stories he writes on his blog. When Marin was a child, her parents divorced because her father was addicted to alcohol. Her mother spent her childhood in an orphanage, and her father was an alcoholic.
During her high school years, Marin worked numerous retail jobs to support her mother since she was aware of her family’s financial pressures. She became the first family member to attend university despite being described as an “average student” by her teachers.
As she told Time, “I think about society differently due to my background.” “I entered politics because I wanted to move forward. I couldn’t just let others handle it.”
Thus, it should be no surprise that Marin’s political agenda includes issues such as gender equality, climate change, and equality. Marin has a progressive vision for Finland and her term as PM. A fellow Finnish MP has praised her as “the most left-wing prime minister our country has ever seen.”
She is dedicated to the welfare state, ensuring support for refugees fleeing conflict and closing the gender pay gap. Shared parental leave is one of the priorities of her government’s ambitious ‘equality program,’ which encourages fathers to take on more equal childcare responsibilities during the first few months of a baby’s life. Under Marin’s leadership, a completely new school at 18 was also introduced in Finland. The goal is to increase the number of educational and employment opportunities available to Finnish youth.
Marin told The Observer in 2021 that Finland has always been committed to equality. “Strengthening structures shouldn’t be used to hinder people’s access. We need to make sure we promote equal opportunities.”
A Defining Moment
Marin laid out an ambitious and far-reaching plan within a few months of being appointed PM. Everything changed suddenly on January 29, 2020, when the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Finland.
Marin’s government invoked the emergency powers act in mid-March after fervent planning and preparation.
The cross-border movement was restricted, and a two-month lockdown followed. Two weeks before her Scandinavian neighbors, Marin acted quickly and confidently to slow the spread of the virus. During 2020, Finland recorded one of the lowest levels of Coronavirus infection in Europe because of this decisive action.
In an interview with the Financial Times in September 2020, Pekka Nuorti, professor of epidemiology at Tampere University, explained that Finland has a history of responding to crises. “Pandemics reflect the functioning and organization of a society as a whole.”
Despite Finland’s rapid shutdown, it did not completely close down, allowing its citizens to make their own decisions to limit the spread of the virus. This reduction in social contact led to a 75 percent reduction in infections in the early months of the pandemic. A Finnish track and trace app also proved vital in controlling infections due to the country’s high digitization rates. As a result of Finland’s widespread desire to comply with official recommendations, almost every other Finn downloaded Corona Flash in 2020.
Marin’s most significant achievement during the pandemic was earning and maintaining the public’s trust. In Finland’s first two-month lockdown, Marin came to the nation weekly with coronavirus briefings, answering the media’s questions and those of the public. Prime Minister Cameron took the time to listen to the concerns of half a million schoolchildren during a press conference dedicated to their questions. In November 2020, 86 percent of the population believed that Finland’s political leaders provided reliable information due to Marin’s efforts to build trust in the government.
Additionally, most Finns trusted their governments to deal with the economic impacts of the lockdown and the health implications. As a result of a short and sharp lockdown during the first wave of the pandemic, the Finnish economy fared better than most of the rest of the world, cushioning the economic blow and seeing output drop by only 6.4% in 2020 – far below the average of 14 percent across the EU. The international media hailed Marin as an example of moral crisis leadership following the initial Covid lockdown due to the relatively robust economic state following the initial Covid lockdown.
As subsequent waves of COVID-19 resulted in further restrictions, Marin’s political goodwill during the early months of the pandemic became crucial to Finland’s response. It can be challenging to maintain public support, as Marin learned in December 2021 when, after contacting a Covid case, she was photographed partying in a Helsinki nightclub. Even though she was fully vaccinated, the prime minister apologized to the public for her lack of judgment. While Marin’s apology came under criticism, it wasn’t a full-blown political scandal as it might have been elsewhere. Marin could move on from the unfortunate episode quickly because Finland’s public trust in governments is exceptionally high – and by January 2022, she has much bigger fish to fry.
Neutral no more
Military build-ups were taking place across the border in neighboring Russia. Russian forces entered Ukraine on February 24 despite Vladimir Putin’s declaration in late December that he had no plans to invade. As the most significant military operation on European soil since World War II, the invasion marked a significant turning point in EU relations and security following eight years of Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine reminded Finns of their past. During the Winter War peace negotiations, Finland ceded nine percent of its territory to the Soviet Union in 1939. Finns still feel fear and uncertainty over Russia’s latest military aggression in Ukraine due to the conflict’s lasting legacy. The Finns’ long-standing neutrality policy has been dramatically reevaluated after a recent poll revealed that 84 percent view Russia as a significant military threat.
Marin announced on May 12 that Finland was applying for membership in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). Finland formally applied for membership in NATO the following day after receiving the announcement, which confirmed what had been brewing for quite some time. A dramatic shift in public opinion about military alignment resulted in this sudden political shift in the heart. Just 20 to 25 percent of the population supported Finnish membership in NATO prior to the Russian conflict with Ukraine. The number of supporters rose to 76 percent following the invasion. It seemed Finland had no choice but to abandon neutrality.
During a visit to Japan, Marin told a news conference that Finland must take this historic step for the security of its citizens. Joining NATO will strengthen the international community as a whole.”
Marin has again proven her ability to take swift, decisive action in a crisis by confirming the historic policy shift with a well-liked Instagram post. Her bold decision to join NATO was not something she would have taken lightly, as she responded promptly to her citizens’ most pressing concerns and refused to back down from difficult discussions.
A new era awaits
No praise can be given to Finland for abandoning its policy of neutrality in favor of NATO membership. Finland’s approach to international relations has changed with this decision. A range of responses has already been received from leaders across the globe in response to its membership bid, even though it has yet to be confirmed.
According to NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, Finland and its Scandinavian neighbor Sweden will be welcomed with open arms. According to a Kremlin statement, Russia may retaliate against Finland in response to its application for membership.
According to the statement, Finland’s accession to NATO will negatively impact bilateral relations between Russia and Finland and the region’s stability and security. “Military-technical and alternative retaliatory measures will have to be taken by Russia to neutralize threats to its national security arising from this.”
Just two days after Helsinki applied for NATO membership, Russia halted its gas supply to its westerly neighbor, along with threats of retaliation. The move reflects the escalating tensions between the two countries, even though gas accounts for only five percent of Finland’s annual energy consumption.
Finland’s NATO application is not guaranteed to succeed, despite the support of NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to block Finland’s bid to join the military alliance unless it can secure unanimous support from all 30 members. Erdogan has been vocally opposed to the Scandinavian nations joining NATO since Finland and Sweden are accused of hosting Kurdish militants from a group he considers to be a terrorist organization. US President Joe Biden recently backed Finland and Sweden’s NATO bid. At the same time, Marin and Stoltenberg met to discuss how to deal with Turkey’s concerns. Although those are encouraging words, Finland’s membership remains in jeopardy until Erdogan relents.
Finland is in a pivotal period in its history as it moves from generation to generation-defining crises. Taking on this new role in Finnish foreign relations will require a direct, decisive, and principled leader, which Marin has proven quite capable of.