What Happened in Finland

In Finland, the coalition led by centre-left Sanna Marin was defeated after promising utopian visions but failing to materially improve people’s lives – providing an important lesson to the global Left about delivering change and remaining relevant.

The defeat of the left-wing coalition led by Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin has set the stage for the most right-wing government in decades. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Four years ago, the Finnish left was content. For decades, Finland had been ruled by governments who, in the name of efficiency and globalisation, slowly but steadily chipped away at the framework of labour negotiations, state ownership and indicative planning that underpinned the welfare state.

The social and health care system was creaking and weariness was on display across public services. Economic growth was sluggish and birthrates were in decline. Finland’s political and media class had long claimed the only answer was neoliberalism.

Then there seemed to be another way. In 2019, a new centre-left government promised far-reaching social and environmental reforms, including rejuvenating the welfare state and a bold commitment to net zero by 2035.

The task fell to Prime Minister Antti Rinne, a seasoned trade unionist, who led a coalition comprising Rinne’s Social Democrats, the environmentalist Greens, the agrarian Centre, the far-left Left Alliance, and the Swedish People’s Party. 

But less than a year after the election, Rinne was gone, resigning following a nationwide postal strike that pitted him against the trade union movement that served as his base of power. In his place, Sanna Marin would soon face a series of intense tests: the Covid pandemic wracked the nation and the war in Ukraine upended the security situation across Europe. 

Marin’s government’s record on delivering its agenda was mixed and the international divisions between coalition parties often overshadowed its achievements.


Twin Crises

During the pandemic, Finland avoided the stricter lockdowns common across much of Europe, while much of the Finnish healthcare system took a careful approach to implement restrictions and the necessity of vaccinations for all groups. The approach was successful for a year and a half: daily life was relatively free from public health interventions and pandemic deaths remained low. 

This would not, and perhaps could not, last. After autumn 2021, excess deaths in Finland were, on average, higher than in the rest of Europe. Critics claimed the restrictions were ramped down too early, and others blamed the vaccination programme and the decision not to offer second booster jabs to those over 60.

Then, in February 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused an immediate national reaction, reaching the deepest reaches of Finnish historical consciousness. Unthinkable in recent decades, the threat of a large nation seeking to conquer its smaller neighbour loomed large over Finnish society and political life. 

Even before the war, public opinion had started shifting towards NATO membership, and Russia’s invasion only accelerated this trend. Marin, who had previously stated the improbability of her government taking Finland into NATO, soon found herself gunning for military union—and cutting decades-long commercial ties with Russia.

Of the government coalition parties, only the Left Alliance provided some opposition to NATO membership; other parties insisted on barging full speed ahead, and yesterday, Finland’s membership of the military alliance was confirmed. Whatever the election fallout is, this is one issue where no policy changes are expected. 

Welfare State Reform

It is on domestic policy that Marin’s government courted the most controversy. Successive governments have tried and failed to reform Finland’s health and social care sectors, and her government was no different. While the reforms answered some of these challenges, the poor provision of basic services in Finland’s rural areas and the dysfunction of healthcare in Helsinki, characterised by longstanding troubles in the capital’s maternity hospitals, have continued. 

The government attempted to improve healthcare primarily through structural reorganisations, where greater power was transferred away from municipalities to larger regions with elected councils, which helped to enable a greater degree of coordination between previously disconnected health and social care sectors. 

In theory, the reforms were positive and harkened back to the best traditions of the welfare state—creating a strong public framework to encourage human flourishing that entrusted the state rather than private providers. In practice, the system lacked the funding required to deliver real improvements. The government failed to either significantly boost central funding or give regions greater taxation powers. As a result, the reforms were left half-finished. 

Similar problems beset the country’s centrepiece education policies. Spearheaded by the Left Alliance, which ran the education ministry, the age of mandatory education was increased from 17 to 18 years. Aimed at combatting social marginalisation, this reform aimed to provide all young people with the opportunity for further education.

These ambitions are laudable, but the government also inherited a legacy of spending cuts to the education section, which failed to fully reverse. The Finnish education system, often topping international performance tables and famed for its free school meals, has long been a matter of national pride. Reports about the decline in education attainment thus proved damaging.  

Despite the presence of the labour-movement-based Social Democrats and Left Alliance, the government’s performance of labour rights did not always meet its mark. The refusal to meet nurses’ pay demands during the pandemic to the provoking of a national postal strike and the broader failure to advance labour rights alienated working-class supporters to the benefit of right-wing populists. 


The ‘Green Shift’

The government parties’ climate policies and the right’s skilful rhetoric against the ‘green shift’ are vital in understanding their electoral failure. The goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2035 in a socially responsible way created deep divisions. 

The Centre Party, supported by Finnish agribusiness, objected to measures to reduce the use of peat power for electricity generation and limit deforestation. The Finnish Left’s shift in its opposition to nuclear power and the Social Democrats’ balancing act between environmental objectives and the jobs-first approach of business and parts of the trade union movement did not succeed in bridging this gap.  

While some of the acrimonies reflected clashes of interests, others were petty squabbles or motivated by the Centre Party’s fear of right-wing criticism. The economic pressures resulting from the war in Ukraine further scuppered the environmental programme.

With rising inflation causing fuel and food prices to soar, the push for environmental justice became difficult to justify, perceived by some as a form of eco-austerity—as the Greens, who crashed in the election, found out the hard way. 


The Debt Problem

The economic crisis profoundly impacted the elections in another way, pushing the issue of national debt to the top of the agenda. 

The Finnish political sphere has a deep, almost primal fear of debt. And debt is something that is hard to avoid when a pandemic and a war is going on—or when attempting to enact far-reaching reforms to bolster the welfare state.

The National Coalition, the pro-market and socially liberal party which will almost certainly head the next government, capitalised on this, winning the support of the debt-fearing middle class by emphasising its fiscal responsibility. The populist right Finns Party, possibly set to play an important role in the coalition, took advantage of the rural backlash against environmental legislation, argued for the necessity of cuts to government spending, blamed immigration for crime and promised harsh sentences.


Left Prospects

After all this, Marin, who today announced her intention to resign her role as party leader, can still count it as an achievement that the Social Democrats were able to increase their support, though a large part of this was achieved with tactical voting from other parties, as well as from her international celebrity. 

The Greens and Centre expected losses due to the failure of their flagship reforms, though it is the Left Alliance, the leftmost party in the election, which was the most shocked by its worst-ever result—down to just 11 MPs.

The next Finnish government may be the most right-wing one in decades, joining the neoliberals with right-wing populists. This would combine a dire austerity agenda with a rundown of environmental legislation and attacks on asylum seekers and human rights. Another alternative would be Social Democrats joining the National Coalition in a ‘blue-red’ government—the option favoured by much of the Finnish elite, as it would give neoliberalism a more modern, friendly and professional image. 

The Finnish Left is facing some difficult questions.  This was the most left-wing governmental constellation achievable within the parliamentary political sphere, headed by the most left-wing Prime Minister available—rejected by a turn to the populist right.  One reason was enacting ambitious reforms but failing to provide means to fund them, such as through taxation. 

However, many factors contribute to the loss and no easy solutions exist. Doubtless, the Left will react to these challenges in different ways. Some will advocate moderation or gathering all the forces under the Social Democratic tent. Others will concentrate on street-level activism and working outside the parliamentary political sphere. 

One tough question to face is whether the Left is indeed becoming a party of academically trained urbanites, offering utopian visions while neglecting to deliver tangible improvements to people’s everyday lives. Without an answer to this challenge, the right’s ascendancy is likely to continue.