Sanna Marin: The rising star who leads Finland's 5.5 million

By Robert Greenall
BBC News

  • Published
Sanna Marin - 8 DecemberImage source, EPA

Sanna Marin has been a rising star on Finland's political scene for some years now.

At 34 she has become the world's youngest prime minister, and her country's youngest ever, at a difficult time - as Finland is hit by strikes and populist nationalism looms over its politics.

Her new finance minister is even younger. Katri Kulmuni, 32, is one of four other female party leaders in the five-party ruling centre-left coalition. Only one of them is over 35.

Their appointments are an attempt to inject some new blood into a demanding body politic as their parties flounder in the polls, just six months after election victory.

"Politics is getting harder," says Kristiina Tolkki, a political journalist from Finland's national broadcaster YLE. "We need some younger people who can be there 24/7, some fresh faces, always ready to react and not say anything stupid."

The new government is also set to have 12 female and seven male ministers, a high gender ratio even for a country which in 1907 became the first in the world to elect women to parliament.

Sanna Marin comes from a modest background.

Her parents split up when she was very young and in her early years her mother raised her alone. The family faced financial problems.

In an interview for the Menaiset website (in Finnish) in 2015 she spoke about the stigma she encountered when her mother was in a same-sex relationship. She said that she felt "invisible" because she was unable to talk openly about her family.

But her mother had always been supportive and made her believe she could do anything she wanted, she said.

She was the first person in her family to finish high school and go to university.

Through the ranks

Ms Marin went into politics at the age of 20 and two years later was already running for a council seat in Tampere, a city north of Helsinki.

She wasn't elected, but within just five years she had not just won a seat but become council leader, aged just 27.

She rose quickly through the ranks of the Social Democrats (SDP), Finland's main centre-left party, becoming an MP in 2015.

She is seen as being a left-winger in the party, and a strong advocate of Finland's welfare state.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Ms Marin became the chosen successor of Social Democrat leader Antti Rinne (L)

Kristiina Tolkki says her rise to the top was almost inevitable.

"I met her at a ladies' sauna night some years ago and asked her if she was going to be leader," she says. "She just looked at me as if to say - are you even asking me this?"

As an MP she quickly caught the attention of party leader Antti Rinne, becoming his deputy and essentially his favourite.

Last winter, Mr Rinne fell ill with pneumonia on holiday and was later diagnosed with coronary thrombosis, meaning he was out of action as his party geared up for an election campaign.

This was a chance for Ms Marin, then still only a first-term MP, to shine. After several months with her at the helm, Mr Rinne returned from sick leave to lead his party to victory.

Tough in-tray

Ms Marin was appointed transport and communications minister in the new government, but it didn't take long for the clouds to gather.

A row over the prime minister's handling of a postal strike led to his resignation within months of taking office.

Ms Marin narrowly won a party vote to replace him on Sunday.

The mother of a 22-month-old daughter, she has dismissed questions about her suitability for the job.

"I have never thought about my age or gender. I think of the reasons I got into politics and those things for which we have won the trust of the electorate," she told reporters after being chosen for prime minister.

But she takes office with more strikes threatened, and production expected to come to a halt at some of Finland's largest companies.

Meanwhile, the populist True Finns party has risen to nearly 25% in the polls, while the SDP and its largest coalition partners, the Centre Party, are slipping.

Ms Marin is Finland's third female prime minister. The first, Anneli Jaatteenmaki, lasted barely more than two months in 2003 and the second, Mari Kiviniemi, was only in power for a year (2010-11).

But by riding a popular wave just six months into the coalition's four-year term, the 34-year-old can surely expect to do better.