HELSINKI (AP) — Finland's local elections Sunday are seen as a first test for its popular young Social Democratic Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who took office 18 months ago shortly before the pandemic and whose party is behind in the polls.
The vote to renew local councils in Finland’s more than 300 municipalities, from the northern Lapland region to the autonomous territory of Aland Islands in the south, is viewed as a key indication of parties’ popularity ahead of the country's 2023 parliamentary election.
Stakes are higher this time because the elections were postponed for two months due to COVID-19, and because of the tensions inside Marin’s center-left, five-party governing coalition.
The 35-year-old Marin, who became Europe’s youngest government leader in December 2019, enjoys high personal popularity and has won international praise for her handling of the COVID-19 crisis in the Nordic nation of 5.5 million.
The elections are the first for Marin as leader of both the government and her party.
Despite her popularity, the Social Democratic Party, of which she became the leader of last year, has failed to attract young voters. Two opposition parties, the conservative National Coalition Party and the populist Finns Party, are in the lead in the polls.
In April, Marin's Cabinet nearly collapsed because a senior coalition member — the Center Party — threatened to leave the government in a dispute over spending. Only persistent negotiations saved Marin’s Cabinet but political analysts said ideological differences are running deep between the Social Democrats and the centrists.
The main themes dominating the local election are the government’s planned social and health care reforms in the municipalities, taxation and the implications of Finland’s COVID-19 exit strategy.
Since the start of the pandemic, Finland has recorded just under 94,000 cases with 964 deaths, among the lowest figures in Europe. An improved situation means Marin’s government has been able to ease some restrictions and the country is reopening.
Marin, whose political career started in the southern industrial and university city of Tampere, said Friday she has received her first COVID-19 jab.
In Helsinki, the capital city of 630,000, the most acute question is who will be the next mayor. The conservatives are trying to stay in power — which they have held for decades — while the Greens are closing in, followed by Marin’s Social Democrats.
A poll commissioned by Finnish public broadcaster YLE predicted Thursday that, nationwide, the National Coalition Party would garner 19.6% of the votes, the Finns Party 18% and the Social Democrats 17%.
A third of eligible voters, or some 1.5 million people, have already voted in advance. Initial results are expected on Monday.