Finland’s Turn

Finland is gripped by wartime mania. News reports show mothers baking celebratory NATO cakes, online sales of NATO flags are soaring, and a Savonlinna-based brewing company has recently rolled out a NATO-themed beer, Otan olutta (the first word is a play on the French acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; the full name means ‘I’ll have some beer’ in Finnish). The outgoing Social Democratic Prime Minister Sanna Marin has repeatedly emphasized the similarities between the 1939 Finnish–Russian War and today’s conflict in Ukraine. Hundreds of Finns, including the former chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, have paid to have personalized messages inscribed on Ukrainian artillery shells fired at Russian forces.

The discourse reached fever-pitch last week when Finland officially entered NATO, almost exactly 75 years after declaring its policy of neutrality. Some 78% of the population supported the move, but this was a recent development. In 2017, that figure stood at only 21%. The newfound Atlanticist fervour has been spearheaded by Marin, whose status as the world’s youngest Prime Minister and penchant for clubbing in Helsinki had already attracted international attention, netting her a luminous profile in British Vogue. Her tough line on Russia later consolidated her stardom. In March she visited Kyiv and laid flowers at the grave of Dmytro Kotsiubailo, a leading figure in the far-right Pravyi Sektor. She also called for heavier arms shipments to Ukraine and backed the construction of a 124-mile fence along Finland’s eastern border, replete with barbed wire to stop Russian men fleeing conscription.

Marin’s Natophilia transformed her into a beacon of hope for Europe’s new progressivism. Light on substance but eminently Instagrammable, this political tendency bases its appeal not on a coherent ideological outlook but on a feel-good millennial relatability. Its modernizing ethos owes more to the New World than the Old; it is just as at home at the Bilderberg Group annual meeting and the WEF stage as it is at the nightclub or pride parade. Under Marin, it has used the moral capital of Nordic pacifism – and the associated traditions of feminism, neutrality and social democracy – in order to destroy it.

Yet Marin’s international star power was not enough to secure victory for the Social Democrats (SDP) in Finland’s parliamentary elections on 2 April. The centre-right National Coalition Party (NCP) returned the best results with 20.8% of the vote, while the far-right Finns Party came a close second on 20.1%: their highest ever tally. Although the SDP won 19.9% and gained three seats, it could not keep its coalition afloat, as the smaller parties – the Left Alliance and the Greens – lost five and seven seats respectively. It appeared that their supporters had cast tactical votes for the SDP in a failed attempt to undermine the Finns (at the SDP’s election night party, the most expensive cocktail on the menu was called ‘Tactical Voting’).

For Marin’s opponents on the right, her main crime was fiscal mismanagement. During the pandemic, the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio jumped ten points from 64% to 74% – prompting the NCP, led by Petteri Orpo, to call for extensive cuts to unemployment and housing benefits, along with other welfare programmes. The opposition effectively exploited the discontent created by rising inflation, with the price of staple foods increasing by more than 30% and a recession on the horizon. The Finns Party meanwhile took aim at non-EU immigration, which they tried to connect to the economic crisis. Although all major parties supported NATO membership, there were notes of public scepticism about Marin’s statecraft. Some pointed out that, although the Finnish president Sauli Niinistö is supposed to hold authority over foreign policy, Marin frequently seemed to overstep her bounds; for instance, by offering to give Ukraine F18 Hornet jets without consulting anyone – including the Finnish air force – beforehand.

Coalition talks are now expected to take weeks. The result may be a deal between the NCP and Finns: a so-called ‘blue-black’ alliance of bourgeois conservatives and lumpen right-populists akin to that of Sweden. Or, if the NCP is reluctant to tarnish its respectable image, it may instead enter a ‘blue-red’ alliance with the SDP. Whatever the outcome, it is likely that the 45-year-old Finns leader Riikka Purra will soon displace Marin – who has stepped down as head of the SDP – as the country’s ascendant young politician. Purra won 42,589 direct votes to Marin’s 35,623: the fourth highest share in Finnish history, and the most of any female candidate in 75 years. Like Marin, she has used social media to create a distinctive personal brand. Her Instagram is filled with beaming outdoor selfies and snapshots of her raw plant-based diet. Other millennial members of the Finns – Miko Bergmom, Joakim Vigelius and Onni Rostila – have leveraged their large TikTok followings to secure seats in parliament. Among those aged 18-29 they are now the most popular party, with an approval rating of 26%: twice that of the SDP.

The far right’s rising fortunes have been met with curiously muted concern in foreign media outlets, perhaps mindful not to damage Finland’s standing as it enters NATO. In the days after the election, Atlanticist think-tankers and commentators were quick to point out that Marin’s loss did not signal a rejection of the military alliance. In a narrow sense, they are correct. Yet the fact remains that, following the electoral defeats of North Macedonia’s Zoran Zaev in 2021 and Sweden’s Magdalena Andersson in 2022, Marin is the third European social democrat to have brought their country into NATO before losing the next election to the right. What does this pattern tell us? Perhaps that a single-minded focus on Euro-Atlantic integration has deprived such parties of their historic purpose and neglected more pressing matters.

Read on: Pekka Haapakoski, ‘Brezhnevism in Finland’, NLR I/86.