Sanna Marin. "Her age, background and gender are interesting in a world led by so many middle-aged men. Credit: Alain Jocard / AFP / Getty

December 7, 2020   5 mins

Two days before the Tories won their thumping general election victory last year, a new government was formed in Finland.

Sanna Marin was 34 years old when she became the world’s youngest head of government (although Austria soon took the title with its chancellor Sebastian Kurz). The left-leaning Social Democrat took over at the helm of a fractious coalition of five parties, all led by women — four of them in their early thirties. So even as Johnson celebrated his victory with claims of a new dawn for Britain, striking pictures of the millennial female takeover of Finland were flying around the globe.

The two politicians won power last December on opposite edges of Europe — but there any similarities end. One is a young mother raised on welfare benefits, who is cool, composed and always perfectly groomed, whether appearing with other world leaders or posting pictures of her infant daughter on Instagram. She is comfortable in debate and taking decisions, while setting out a clearly progressive path for her country. The other is a dishevelled, middle-aged old Etonian who flip-flops around the conservative political spectrum, dislikes confrontation and leaves even his own advisers shaking their heads over his disorganisation and lack of direction.

Then there is the handling of the deadly virus that distorted all their priorities just a few weeks after those images of triumph. Britain, under Boris Johnson, has become one of the benchmarks for failure, with a bungled and confused approach that has resulted in one of the worst death rates on the planet and plummeting popularity for the prime minister.

Finland stands out in Europe for a response that protected its citizens and — as one senior figure in the World Health Organisation told me recently — put it on a par with world-beating Asian countries in demonstrating how to control pandemic. It has been the stealthy Nordic success story, while the world was transfixed by the lockdown-avoidance strategies of neighbouring Sweden.

Even as the second wave surges in Finland, sparking new restrictions and talk of fresh lockdowns, there is little doubt which of these two premiers can look back with greater satisfaction on the past year. Finland has a confirmed death rate from this coronavirus of 74 fatalities per million people, more than eight times better than the European Union average and 12 times better than the United Kingdom’s dire record. Its economy shrank 6.4% in the second quarter during the peak — a devastating decline, but still far better than the EU average of 14%, let alone the UK’s frightening one-fifth fall. No wonder Marin’s popularity soared in the crisis, with 85% of Finns approving of her pandemic handling at one point.

There was no magic ingredient behind Finland’s approach — beyond listening to key advisers from all walks of life. “This is not a normal situation and she has relied on experts, not just in health but also economists,” said Kimmo Elo, senior researcher at the Centre for Parliamentary Studies, University of Turku. “She is open to ideas and not afraid of showing that she does not know everything. She tries to gather as much information as possible, then makes a pragmatic decision and sticks to it — a bit like Angela Merkel in Germany.”

It can only have helped that the nation is sparsely populated and its peripheral location gave it slightly more time to prepare. Its situation next to Russia also ensures it takes disaster planning very seriously, so the country was sitting on decent stockpiles of medical supplies while the rest of the world scrabbled around for protective gear. But then it locked down quickly and tightly for two months, protected old people, kept out visitors and rapidly built up an effective tracking and tracing system based on a smartphone app that was downloaded by almost half the 5.5m population.

The figures seem impressive — although if we have learned anything over the past year, it is to be wary of a rush to judge success in fighting this strange new virus. Yet there is no doubt Marin has joined a select group of leaders seen as having had a good pandemic, in sharp contrast to Johnson and Donald Trump. Last week, Bloomberg listed Finland alongside New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea as one of the best places to live during the crisis in terms of handling the disease with least dislocation to business and society. The UK came one place below Pakistan in the bottom half of the table. Three of these top five nations are led by women in a world where females run fewer than one in ten countries.

Her performance should have put paid to the sexist jibes that greeted her accession as former party leader Antti Rinn was felled by a postal strike, to be replaced by a photogenic woman. Marin is, in any case, her country’s third female prime minister. But another rash of recent headlines sparked by a magazine photoshoot — in which she was wearing nothing under a blazer — showed this as a vain hope. “In every position I’ve ever been in, my gender has always been the starting point – that I am a young woman,” she told Vogue. “I hope one day it won’t be an issue, that this question won’t be asked. I want to do as good a job as possible. I’m no better and no worse than a middle-aged man.”

It is easy to forget Marin is a career politician who was running Tampere, the country’s third-biggest city, by the time she was 27. Yet her age, background and gender are interesting in a world led — often with deadly ineptitude — by so many of those middle-aged men. They inform her political views — which focus heavily on climate change, equality and social justice — along with her refreshingly open style, which includes posting breast-feeding selfies on social media and responding to media questions like a human being.

Marin has written in a blog that politics seemed “foreign” to someone from her tough background: “Like many other Finns, my family is full of sad stories.” She was raised in what she calls a ‘rainbow family” after her alcoholic father split from her mother, who moved in with another woman. “I would say I don’t have a father,” she told one interviewer.

As a child she felt “invisible” at school, since same-sex relationships were tolerated but not discussed in small-town Finland before the turn of the century. Her home was filled with warmth but not “material abundance”, so as a teenager she worked in a bakery and then as a shop cashier at an age when Johnson was studying classics in his tails at Eton. Then she became the first person in her family to reach university before starting her stellar political career.

She took over the coalition eight months after the Social Democrats narrowly beat the hard-right Finns Party to take the premiership as biggest party, although they won just 17.7% of the vote. Her success was the culmination of a “modern feminist anti-male movement,” said one sour Finns Party leader.

Despite the fragility of the five-party coalition — encompassing Greens through to the Centre Party, which draws support from older and rural voters — she has led firmly from the Left, unlike her predecessor who failed to straddle populism and liberalism at the same time. She admits she has been fuelled in recent months by fear the pandemic will spark instability and inflame populism. “People often want to find someone to blame and the easiest ones to blame are the governments and politicians,” she said.

As in other places, some Finns are starting to jibe against restrictions on their lives sparked by the pandemic. Marin has shown leadership mettle in steering the nation through its greatest challenge since the Second World War, but may be tested more for her political skills in keeping her governing coalition welded together when the world starts returning to normality.

There will be more focus on her policies, such as a bold but costly pledge to make the country carbon-neutral by 2035. And the clash between liberal younger generations — now running this country — and older, more conservative folk attracted by nationalism has not gone away, especially in the fastest-ageing society in Europe.

“I believe that trust will return through action,” she declared at the outset. So far, so good, in these most testing times. But things may soon become harder, not easier, for this global pin-up of millennial politics.

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.