1 hour before
Finns go to the polls on Sunday, in an election seen as a head-to-head between right-wing populists, conservatives and the centre-left of Prime Minister Sanna Marin.
Finland may be days away from joining NATO, but the war in Ukraine has had no impact on the vote, despite the fact that Finland shares the longest border with Russia.
Instead, the electoral battlefield has been the economy.
And the Finns are making a big decision about the future direction of their country.
The main challenge for Sanna Marin’s Social Democrats comes from the right.
After four years of opposition, Petteri Orpo’s conservative National Coalition Party has high hopes of forming a coalition, but this could be the best chance the populist Finns Party has to lead a government.
When Ms Marin, now 37, burst onto the scene four years ago, she was the world’s youngest prime minister leading a coalition of five parties, all led by women. Though her poll ratings remain high, she is seen as a polarizing figure and came under intense scrutiny last summer when video surfaced of her singing, dancing and drinking at a party.
“He has a lot of supporters outside his party,” says Vesa Vares, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Turku.
“Many of those who don’t like Social Democratic policies appreciate that he had to deal with the Covid and Ukraine crises and managed to deal with both.”
The big issue during the campaign has been Finland’s public debt and how the country’s precious welfare state can be financed in the future. Sanna Marin has come under fire from the right for increasing public debt, though she argues the government had to spend heavily in response to Covid and neighboring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Matti Koivisto, political correspondent for Finland’s public broadcaster YLE, says it’s a particularly Finnish trait to worry about public finances, but the country faces an inherent structural problem, with an aging population and not enough people to finance it.
The labor shortage is most acute in the southern region of Uusimaa, where 30% of the population lives, and is especially problematic in three of the largest cities, Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa.
“All the other parties say that the only way to preserve Finland’s welfare society is to get people from abroad to come to work,” Koivisto told the BBC. “But the Finns say we should actually cut spending if that’s what it takes.”
Finns have been trying to steer clear of the far-right since new leader Riikka Purra, 45, took office in 2021. Her Instagram account is full of wholesome images of healthy eating and photos from the countryside, promising “no politics here.”
But beyond the bowls of blueberries, kiwi and quinoa, the immigration policies of Ms. Purra’s party set her apart from anyone else.
The Finns have long had a strategic goal of leaving the European Union, but Koivisto says they have not highlighted that policy during the current campaign, due to the war in Ukraine. However, he says that he is still part of his program.
“The Finns have a lot of support in the countryside, but also in the smaller cities and by the working class in the bigger cities,” says Vesa Vares.
“They tend to collect the votes of discontent. It’s the same development that has taken place in other parts of Europe, for example in Sweden.”
Whichever party wins on Sunday night is likely to have the first chance to form a government.
If they are the Finns, they will immediately seek common ground with Petteri Orpo’s conservative National Coalition Party (NCP). Orpo has not ruled out working with the populists, but there are some doubts whether the Finns could muster more than 100 seats to form a majority in the 200-seat parliament.
The 53-year-old conservative leader has his eye on victory. His party promises tax cuts and lower public spending and this time he would be in a position to choose which party to work with, says Professor Vares. Mr. Orpo has been careful not to attack Ms. Marin the way she has attacked him, he adds.
Some 40% of voters cast their ballots even before Sunday’s vote, and it should be clear which party won by the end of the day. But it will take much longer for a government to form.