Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, has lost her battle to stay in power after her centre-left Social Democratic party (SDP) was narrowly beaten into third place in a cliffhanger election by its conservative and far-right rivals.
With all of the votes counted on Sunday, the right-wing National Coalition party (NCP) won 20.8% of the vote, with the populist, nation-first Finns party scoring 20.1%. Marin’s SDP took 19.9% of the vote. Voter turnout was 71.9%.
Marin congratulated the election winners during her concession speech, but hailed an improvement in both her party’s vote share and its projected number of MPs. “It’s a really good achievement, even though I didn’t finish first today,” she told supporters in Helsinki.
“Democracy has spoken, the Finnish people have cast their vote, and the celebration of democracy is always a wonderful thing,” she added. “We have good reason to be happy about this result.”
The NCP’s leader, Petteri Orpo, told the public broadcaster, Yle, that the result was a “big victory … a strong mandate for our policies”, adding that his party would be leading the coalition talks. Finns leader Riikka Purra called it an “an excellent result”.
Orpo, a 53-year-old former finance minister, said the Nordic country’s solidarity with Kyiv would remain strong during his tenure.
“First to Ukraine: we stand by you, with you,” Orpo told the Associated Press at NCP’s victory event. “We cannot accept this terrible war. And we will do all that is needed to help Ukraine, Ukrainian people because they fight for us. This is clear.”
Finland, which shares a long border with Russia, cleared the last hurdles of becoming a Nato member earlier in the week as alliance members Turkey and Hungary signed off the country’s membership bid.
Marin, 37, became the world’s youngest prime minister when she assumed the leadership of the SDP – and the Finnish premiership – in 2019 and has successfully led the country through the Covid pandemic and to the brink of Nato membership.
Marin’s determination to enjoy a social life also made headlines, with fans hailing her as a rising star of the centre-left and model for a new generation of young female leaders. Critics say her behaviour has at times been inappropriate for her office.
She was forced to apologise and took a drug test last year, but also defended her right to party, after photos and video emerged of her drinking and dancing with friends.
Her personal popularity remained high, but with a recession forecast and inflation surging, the opposition leaders’ accusations of excessive government borrowing and inflated public spending – along with their pledges to impose tough cuts, particularly on welfare budgets – hit home.
In Finland, the largest party traditionally gets the first shot at forming a coalition to obtain a majority, meaning Marin’s four-year term as prime minister has come to a close – even if the SDP could yet form part of the new coalition.
The NCP won 48 seats in the Nordic country’s 200-seat parliament, 10 more than in the outgoing assembly, while the Finns took 46 – an increase of seven MPs – and the SDP 43, an improvement of three.
Orpo has promised to slash spending on unemployment and housing benefits, while Purra – whose Finns party was part of a coalition government from 2015 to 2017 – said its priority was to cut non-EU immigration, promising also to focus on climate, crime and energy policies if it is part of the new coalition.
“I trust the Finnish tradition of negotiating with all parties, and trying to find the best possible majority government for Finland,” Orpo told the AP.
“And you know what is important for us? It’s that we are an active member of the European Union. We build up Nato-Finland, and we fix our economy. We boost our economic growth and create new jobs. These are the crucial, main, important issues we have to write into the government program.”
The NCP leader, who has said the party did not rule out working with anyone, is now expected to start sounding out other leaders to begin trying to form a new coalition government from Monday, a process likely to take several weeks.
He could try to assemble a right-leaning “blue-black” coalition with the Finns and one or more smaller parties, but may also decide to pursue a cross-spectrum “blue-red” alliance with the SDP and its allies, an outcome analysts see as perhaps most likely, despite significant policy differences.
His task is complicated by the fact that the SDP and two of its current five-party coalition, the Greens and the Left Alliance, have already ruled out any alliance with the Finns, which Marin called “openly racist” during the campaign.
Of the two others, the Swedish People’s party – a moderate party representing Swedish-speaking Finns, unrelated to the Swedish far-right party of the same name – has also said it is “very unlikely” to partner with the far-right party.