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‘A cashier can become even a prime minister’

by Narges Mohammadi

While a small country, with a population of just 5.5 million people, Finland punches above its weight on gender equality, wellbeing and education. Its youngest-ever leader was shaped by the strength of the country’s expansive welfare state.

Raised by her working-class mother, Ms Marin came from a modest background, becoming the first in her family to finish high school and graduate from university. She says it was her working-class upbringing that sparked her desire to run for government.

“I have been able to live a safe childhood, get an education and pursue my dreams,” she once wrote. “Making it possible for everyone has driven me into politics.”

Ms Marin started work at 15 at a bakery and distributed magazines to earn extra cash. But it was her job as a cashier that was once mocked by Estonia’s interior minister, who ridiculed her as a “sales girl” and questioned her fitness to run a country.

“I’m extremely proud of Finland. Here, a poor family’s child can educate themselves and achieve their goals in life. A cashier can become even a prime minister,” Ms Marin clapped back in a tweet at the time. At just 20 years of age, Ms Marin entered politics, quickly moving up the ranks of the Social Democratic Party.

By 27, she was elected to the local council in the southern city of Tampere, an experience that, she says, taught her the “valuable lesson” of reaching across the political divide to form a consensus.

Seven years later, at the age of 34, she made history as the world’s youngest leader.

Postal strike controversy sends Marin into top office

Ms Marin’s rise into the top office came from an unexpected place: the postal service. In late 2019, more than 10,000 workers from Finland’s state-owned postal service went on strike over a proposal to shift 700 employees onto lower-paid contracts.

The strike lasted for two weeks, plunging the nation into chaos as mail went undelivered and transport workers and airline staff threatened to walk off their jobs in solidarity. Then-prime minister and Social Democratic Party leader Antti Rinne was skewered for his mismanagement of the whole debacle, and swiftly resigned.

Enter Sanna Marin. The party council chose the first-term MP and transport minister of just six months to take over as leader and prime minister. At 34 years of age, she became the world’s youngest prime minister and Finland’s third female leader.

“I have never thought about my age, or my gender. I only think about the issues which made me engage in politics,” she says. Even so, she has attracted headlines globally for breastfeeding her daughter in parliament and championing parental leave. Together with the leaders of her four coalition partners — all women, three of whom were also under 35 — she named a cabinet made up of 12 women and seven men.

And, with five parties hashing out their priorities for the nation, negotiation was always going to be a key skill for the Finnish leader.

A leader who knows how to compromise

Ms. Marin has joked that, in Finland, decisions are traditionally made at the sauna. “So now that we have five women in charge, we can all go to the sauna together and make the decisions there,” she told TIME magazine in early 2020.

Although, in reality, the partyroom discussions have taken place around a table, there have certainly been some heated debates. Ms Marin’s Social Democratic Party secured enough votes in the 2019 election to become the largest party in the parliament, but only just.

With 40 seats, they were well short of a majority, so swiftly formed a coalition with the Center Party, Green League, Left Alliance and Swedish People’s Party. “In Finland, governments tend to be coalition governments. So we don’t have as clearly as in two-party systems … [where] one side [is] normally considered clearly more right-wing and another side considered more left-wing,” Mr Teivainen says.

“The Center Party has been in both governments. So, here, they are moderating [the Social Democrats] party towards the [right].”

As leader, Ms. Marin has had to navigate the ragtag bunch through their fair share of ideological differences, with clashing views on how best to steer the nation safely through a pandemic and balance the budget.


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