Finland's coalition loses ground to opposition in local elections

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By Euronews  with AP
SDP chairperson and Prime Minister Sanna Marin at the The Social Democratic Party of Finland reception for municipal elections in Helsinki, Finland, Sunday June 13
SDP chairperson and Prime Minister Sanna Marin at the The Social Democratic Party of Finland reception for municipal elections in Helsinki, Finland, Sunday June 13   -  Copyright  Roni RekomaaLehtikuva via AP

An opposition centre-right party came top in Sunday's local election in Finland, ahead of Prime Minister Sanna Marin's ruling Social Democratic Party. 

It was the first election for Marin since she took office 18 months ago.

With all votes counted in the Nordic nation's municipal election, initial results showed on Monday that the conservative National Coalition Party had taken 21.4 per cent of votes nationwide, while the Social Democrats took 17.7 per cent and centrist government member Center Party 14.9 per cent respectively.

The vote to renew local councils in Finland's more than 300 municipalities, with some 35,000 candidates running from the northern Lapland region to the autonomous territory of Aland Islands in the south, is viewed as a key indicator of parties' popularity ahead of the country's 2023 parliamentary election.

The elections were the first for Marin as leader of both the government and her party.

PM Marin: Results, low voter turnout a disappointment

She acknowledged that the result was a disappointment as support for the Social Democrats was 1.7 percentage points lower from the 2017 election, while the conservatives managed to increase their support by 0.7 percentage points.

"The result was not as good as I had expected," Marin told reporters late Sunday, adding that she was particularly disappointed with the low voter turnout of 55.1 per cent.

The populist Finns Party saw its support rising 5.6 percentage points from the previous election to 14.5 per cent of all votes.

Marin, 35, enjoys high popularity in the nation of 5.5 million but the Social Democrats have struggled to attract voters, particularly younger ones, with their agenda.

The two opposition parties were seen as the overall winners of the elections which were postponed by two months due to Finland's COVID-19 situation. All but one member in Marin's five-party, centre-left coalition government ended up losing seats.

The main themes dominating the local election were the government's planned social and health care reforms in the municipalities, taxation and the implications of Finland's COVID-19 exit strategy.

Elections seen as 'litmus test' for PM Marin

The elections were seen as a litmus test for Sanna Marin, who became the youngest leader in the world when she took office at 34.

The vote to renew local councils in Finland’s more than 300 municipalities is seen as a catalyst for parties’ popularity as they wait for the 2023 parliamentary election. Stakes are higher this time because the elections were postponed by two months due to COVID-19, and because of the tensions inside Marin’s centre-left, five-party governing coalition.

In April, it was near collapse because a senior coalition member — the centrist Centre Party — threatened to leave the government in a dispute overspending. Only persistent negotiations saved Marin's Cabinet from collapsing but political analysts said scars and ideological differences are running deep between the Social Democrats and the centrists.

Finland among lowest COVID cases in Europe

Since the start of the pandemic, Finland has recorded just under 94,000 cases with 964 deaths, which are 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.

In Helsinki, the capital, the most acute question was who would become the next mayor of the city of 630,000 people. 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.

In Helsinki, the capital, the conservative National Coalition remained in power giving them the choice of next city mayor.