Finland, which shares a long border with Russia, goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new government as it prepares to join NATO.
Turkey ratified the Nordic nation’s membership on Thursday – the last of the alliance’s 30 members to do so.
Will Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s Social Democratic Party, which began the membership process last year, welcome the country of 5.5 million people into the world’s largest military alliance?
Is Marin still as popular as she was in 2019, when she became the youngest host in the world at the age of 34?
Here’s what you should know:
How is the government formed?
Thousands of candidates from 22 political parties are competing for 200 seats in Finland’s unicameral Eduskunta parliament.
Four groups dominate the elections: the Social Democrats, the Center Party, the National Coalition Party and the Finns Party.
Here is where the eight parties are on the political spectrum:
- Social Democratic Party of Finland (SDP) – Marin’s centre-left party, now the largest in parliament.
- Center Party (KESK) – The fourth largest party in Finland with centrist politics.
- National Coalition Party (KOK) – The main centre-right opposition party, also described as conservative-liberal.
- Finn’s Party (PS) – Right-wing populists demand a reduction in immigration.
- Left Alliance (VAS) – Left-wing party that faced divisions over Finland’s membership in NATO.
- Green League (VIHR) – Environmentalists who prioritize well-being and equality.
- Swedish People’s Party of Finland (RKP) – A party representing the minority of Swedish speakers in Finland.
- Christian Democrats (KD) – A party that supports “Christian values”.
The latest public opinion survey published by the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat showed that the three largest parties – the National Coalition, the Social Democrats and the Finnish Party – are tied.
The party that wins the most seats can form the next government.
To do so, it must form a coalition with other parties and secure at least 101 seats. The leader of the winning party becomes the prime minister.
Is Marin still popular?
Marina’s government is a coalition made up of her Social Democrats, the Center Party, the Green League, the Left Alliance and the Swedish People’s Party.
He faces stiff competition, notably Petteri Orpo of the National Coalition and Riikka Purra of the Finland Party.
During Marin’s tenure, she became known for her outspoken politics, modern feminist ideals and cool personality. Last year, she was heavily criticized by some members of the opposition after a video of her partying with friends went viral on social media.
But Helsinki voter Emma Holopainen told Al Jazeera that the scandal would not jeopardize Marin’s chances.
“Many of the criticisms leveled at her were about her personal life and choices, and were not directly related to her leadership skills,” she said.
Marianna, 27, shares a similar opinion.
“For the first time ever,” she said, “people are talking about a ‘tactical vote’ for the Social Democrats because they want Sanna Marin to remain prime minister even though they would otherwise vote for another party, like the Greens.
“The SDP is behind the KOK in the polls by a small margin, and people would prefer Marin to remain prime minister.”
On election day, Finns traditionally enjoy coffee and sweet buns called “pulla” after voting.
“There was also a post circulating on Instagram explaining how you can tell which party someone is voting for by the pula – cinnamon roll – they have after voting,” said Marianna.
What do Finns think about NATO?
According to Theodora Helimäki, a PhD candidate who studies voting behavior at the University of Helsinki, joining NATO is something that all sides agree on.
“Historically, joining NATO before Russia’s war in Ukraine was a divisive issue for some people in the country,” Holopainen said. “NATO is quite popular now and more and more people are supporting it.”
A poll by the YLE television company in May showed that 76 percent of Finns are in favor of joining NATO.
The Left Party, once a staunch opponent of Finland’s entry into NATO, now supports membership as a defensive move.
According to local media, the war in Ukraine was one of the main reasons behind this sharp turn among leftists.
Marianna told Al Jazeera that she supports joining NATO.
“Before February 24, 2022, if any left-leaning young person had been asked about Finland joining NATO, the answer would have been negative,” she said, referring to the date of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“We wanted to remain non-aligned. We didn’t want to spend money on defense or send our people to train with the alliance.
“But there is a lot of collective historical trauma with Russia, which we inherited from our grandparents’ generation, and we realized that now there is only one option, and that is to join NATO.”
How does voting work?
Representatives are elected from 13 constituencies. The number of representatives elected from each district is proportional to the number of inhabitants of the district.
Voters choose candidates – who are ranked according to their popularity – from an open list and those with the most votes in each district win seats.
“It’s like we have 13 mini-elections that will decide the winners in Parliament,” Helimäki said.
Finns living abroad can vote in advance and send absentee ballots by post.
According to Helimäki, advance voting in Finland has become more popular this year. This can be done at libraries, universities and some grocery stores.
What are Finns interested in?
The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and solving security problems with Russia have been Marina’s main challenges since the beginning of her mandate.
This year, voters are also more concerned about how the government plans to tackle inflation and climate change, Helimäki said.
According to Statistics Finland, inflation rose to 8.8 percent in February, driven by higher mortgage interest rates and more expensive heating bills.
As in the rest of Europe, the cost of living crisis is worrying.
Moreover, at the end of January, Finland’s national debt was around 144 billion euros ($157 billion). Debt began to rise during the pandemic and after Russia invaded Ukraine. It increased as the government borrowed more money to strengthen its defense systems.
Finance Minister Annika Saarikko warned that the next government may have to borrow more.
Opposition leader Orpo told the Reuters news agency that cutting unemployment, social benefits and business subsidies could rebalance the economy.
But Marino’s government has opposed spending cuts as a solution to the debt crisis and instead proposed raising taxes and boosting economic growth.
On climate change, the Finland Party’s Purra said in a recent debate that Finland’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2035 – a goal set by the Marin government and with which the KOK party also agrees – should be pushed back to 2050.
“Some Finns, especially from the forestry sector, are not very happy with this statement,” Helimäki said. “Sixty percent of forests in Finland are privately owned, so they are worried that such messages from political parties could result in even more deforestation and environmental degradation.”
The Finnish Party’s campaign is also focused on opposing immigration.
Marin called the Finnish party “openly racist” and said she would not form a coalition with the populists.
“It’s quite disappointing to see that immigration is still a contentious issue,” said Holopainen, a voter from Helsinki.