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Finland: Social Democrats’ future looks uncertain despite the strong election result

Tapio Raunio
Professor of political science, Tampere University

In the elections in Finland, the Social Democrats increased their vote share. Now, the party needs to win the hearts of younger voters. This may be challenging as the highly popular Sanna Marin announced her resignation as party leader.

The Social Democrats (SDP) performed well in the elections, with 19.9 per cent of the vote (2.2 per cent more than in the 2019 elections) and an increase of three seats to 43 (out of 200). This was particularly impressive considering that normally, governing parties lose votes. Yet, it would be premature to conclude that the future looks bright for the Social Democrats.

Actual survey data will become available later, but the election results indicate that the Social Democrats gained votes among younger age cohorts, and probably particularly among younger female voters. Much of this is explained by the personal profile of Sanna Marin, the outgoing prime minister who has led the party since late 2019. Marin stood in the Pirkanmaa electoral district around Tampere, yet her popularity undoubtedly swayed the minds of younger people across the entire country. Marin, currently 37, has been touted as the ‘rock star’ of Finnish politics, and she is clearly the most famous Finnish politician of the 21st century so far. Marin’s government coalition – where all party chairs have been women – and Marin herself have received a lot of international media coverage. Marin is perhaps also a polarising figure, but her support has remained strong throughout the early 2020s. This should concern the Social Democrats, as SDP party members belong primarily to older age groups, while the two other left-wing parties, the Greens and the Left Alliance, have been more popular among younger voters. Three days after the elections Marin announced that she would step down as the party chair in the party congress in September. Her successor will face a very tough job in ensuring that younger voters continue to vote for SDP. 

During the election campaign, Marin engaged in aggressive rhetoric against the centre-right National Coalition and the other parties of the right. Specifically, she argued that voting for SDP is the only way to prevent a victory for the political right. This did not go down well among the Greens and the Left Alliance, as media attention during the final campaign weeks focused very much on which party finishes first and thereby has the lead in forming the new government: the National Coalition, the Finns Party, or the Social Democrats. Other parties received much less media attention, with especially the Greens finding it difficult to get their message across. Marin’s strategy probably increased SDP’s vote share, but hurt the Greens and the Left Alliance. In Helsinki, SDP increased its support by 7,3 per cent to 20,9 per cent, while the even larger drop in the support of the Green League (-8,2 per cent) in the capital suggests that many Green voters switched to the Social Democrats in these elections. Party leaders Maria Ohisalo (Greens) and Li Andersson (Left Alliance) looked absolutely gutted as the election results became clear. What this implies for future cooperation between the left-wing parties remains to be seen, but it is safe to predict that the support for the Greens will increase again over the next few years – and this may happen at the expense of Social Democrats.

The election results show that SDP managed to retain its support in industrial towns across the country largely. However, the strong performance of the Finns Party must cause headaches in the SDP headquarters. The Finns Party has since the 2011 elections been the largest party among working-class voters (when measured by occupation), yet the party remains critical of trade unions that continue to see the Social Democrats as their natural ally. What is particularly striking is that the support of the Finns Party has remained steady for over a decade despite serving in government (2015-2017) and a change of party leaders. Here, the challenge is very much ideological: under Marin SDP has moved in a ‘green-left’ direction, with many wondering what distinguishes the Social Democrats from the Greens and the Left Alliance. This probably alienates many working-class voters that are attracted by the social conservatism of the Finns Party. Interestingly, the Finns Party started as a populist, Eurosceptical party that was quite centrist and even centre-left on the socio-economic dimension, but has since the 2010s moved in a more right-wing direction with opposition to immigration the central item on its agenda. This may provide an opportunity for the Social Democrats to broaden support among working-class voters, particularly if the Finns Party joins a centre-right government that most likely will introduce substantial budget cuts affecting lower-income citizens.

Political parties and their leaders must always build compromises that somehow please their ‘core’ supporters whilst hopefully winning the hearts of those less closely linked to the party. Whoever leads SDP in the future will not be in an easy position in the next few years, but obviously much depends on the composition of the new cabinet. One group that Social Democrats could target are the non-voters. The turnout was 72,0 per cent and has stayed at roughly that same level all elections that have been held since the beginning of the 21st century. The most favoured party among non-voters is the Finns Party, but considering that those not voting tend to be lower-income citizens, Social Democrats could invest in policies that specifically target these groups.

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