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What to know about Sanna Marin’s reelection loss, Finland’s future with NATO

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Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, lost her reelection bid this weekend amid an extremely narrow three-way race largely centered on the economy.

The center-right National Coalition Party came in first in the Sunday parliamentary election, with 20.8 percent of the vote, followed by the populist Finns Party, which got 20.1 percent of the vote. Marin’s Social Democratic Party came in third with 19.9 percent of the vote.

The election comes at a pivotal moment for Finland on the world stage, with the country set soon to join NATO as its neighbor, Russia, invades Ukraine. Here’s what you need to know about Marin’s loss, her successor and what that means for Finland’s place in Europe.

As Marin congratulated election winners Sunday, she noted that the race was not a complete loss for her party, which gained more votes and more seats than in the last election four years ago. “It’s a really good achievement, even though I didn’t finish first today,” she said. “Democracy has spoken, the Finnish people have cast their vote, and the celebration of democracy is always a wonderful thing.”

Marin became the world’s youngest sitting national leader when she was elected at age 34 in 2019, with many hailing her as a beacon for hope in a world governed mostly by older men. Marin garnered praise at home and abroad for her support for Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion, her handling of the coronavirus pandemic and leading the country’s pivot toward NATO.

She has, however, faced criticism on the economic front, with critics blaming her for a rise in Finland’s public debt and climbing inflation.

A leaked video of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin dancing with friends sparked outrage. But how does a night out turn into a national scandal? (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Leila Barghouty/The Washington Post)

Sexism and ageism also made her a target, analysts say. In August, political opponents berated Marin after videos surfaced of her at a party amid the country’s economic crisis. Some blasted her behavior as unprofessional, while others demanded she take a drug test, which came back negative. Many of her supporters, however, posted videos of themselves dancing in solidarity.

Women are dancing in solidarity with Finnish PM Sanna Marin

Who is Marin’s successor?

National Coalition Party leader Petteri Orpo is expected to become the country’s prime minister. In Finland, the winning party traditionally forms a coalition to obtain a majority. In this case, Orpo could lean toward the right and work with the Finns Party, or toward the center left.

Orpo, 53, called the election result a “great victory” and said his party would “start negotiating a government.” But there is no firm deadline for the formation of a new government, said Teivo Teivainen, a professor of world politics at the University of Helsinki, noting that politicians would work for “as long as it takes” and that, at this point, it is hard to say “what kind of government coalition we will get.”

Teivainen said Orpo’s “gray public image” is a stark contrast to Marin’s, prompting some voters to consider him a more “serious” person to solve the nation’s economic woes.

Teivainen noted Marin still remained popular in the country after four years — a rarity in Finnish politics. “She’s been more of an asset than a burden,” he said.

Orpo, who served as Finland’s finance minister from 2016 to 2019, has campaigned to prioritize the Finnish economy as the nation grapples with rising inflation and a cost-of-living crisis. “We want to put Finland’s economy in order,” his website pledged.

A populist party won big. How?

The Finns Party, which campaigned for a hard line on immigration and wants Finland to eventually leave the European Union, came second in Sunday’s election. Orpo has said that his party is open to working with the Finns, the Associated Press reported.

Teivainen said the success of the Finns Party, led by Riikka Purra, was not surprising. The party has been strong for the past decade and has in recent years gained popularity among younger voters particularly through use of TikTok. Purra said Sunday that the win was the party’s “best election result ever.”

“Among young people, it is the party with the biggest number of supporters,” Teivainen said. He added that while many younger people do not necessarily agree with the party’s policies on migration and race, many believe it produces “cool TikTok videos.”

What happens with Finland, NATO and Ukraine?

Sunday’s election comes as Finland edges closer to joining NATO, a move that will mark the end of the country’s decades-long tradition of military neutrality.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday that Finland will officially join the security alliance on Tuesday. By becoming a member, Finland will help remake European security, doubling NATO’s land border with Russia and bringing the full force of the alliance to Europe’s far north.

Turkey approves Finland’s NATO bid, clearing path for it to join alliance

A new government is not likely to change that, Teivainen said.

On Sunday, Orpo was quick to stress that Finland’s support for Ukraine would not dwindle under his leadership.

“First to Ukraine: we stand by you, with you,” Orpo told the Associated Press at his party’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.”

Orpo also had a message for Russian President Vladimir Putin: “go away from Ukraine because you will lose.”

Emily Rauhala, Annabelle Timsit and Kareem Fahim contributed to this report.

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