Analysis: Have Finland 'partygate' videos helped or hurt Sanna Marin?

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By David Mac Dougall
Prime minister of Finland Sanna Marin holds a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, on August 19, 2022,
Prime minister of Finland Sanna Marin holds a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, on August 19, 2022,   -  Copyright  RONI REKOMAA / LEHTIKUVA / AFP

Have recent videos of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin partying with friends helped her or hurt her?

Is she still the world's coolest prime minister, has she disrespected a great office of state, is she unreliable in a crisis, or is she even the victim of a targeted Russian cyber information operation?

You can find all of these opinions - and more - speculated about on social media but the truth is a lot more nuanced, and it helps to understand a bit about Finnish politics and society to put the whole story into context. 

So let's try to do that. 

First of all, it's important to understand that Finland has a pretty low threshold for what constitutes a "political scandal". How low? Well low enough that the latest "partygate scandal" was roundly mocked on an episode of The Daily Show on Comedy Central on Friday night. 

"Finland should be grateful for the scandals they have!" said host Trevor Noah, comparing the coverage of Marin singing and dancing with friends at a private house party, to political scandals in America where the home of former President Donald Trump was recently raided, as FBI agents looked for highly classified documents that might contain nuclear secrets. 

To illustrate just how low the bar is set in Finland when it comes to political "scandals", in recent years the media and political opponents have made mountains out of molehills when a pile of firewood was delivered to the home of one former prime minister; when the then-leader of the Greens went to a gay bar in Stockholm during Pride Week; and when another former prime minister was pictured -- gasp -- wearing shorts.

Marin has suffered a never-ending barrage of these "scandals" since taking office as the world's youngest prime minister in December 2019, and it's clear a lot of the criticism she faces is down to the fact that she's a relatively young, accomplished and capable woman.  

She's faced front page headlines and the wrath of her political opponents for such behaviour as making breakfast at home with food paid from public funds (previous prime ministers had done this, nobody complained before, Marin refunded the very modest amount of money personally). 

There was also the time she was at a bar with friends, and might or might not have been contactable on her official phone when one of her ministers tested positive for COVID (she was cleared of any wrongdoing); and the time some media outlets and political foes ridiculed her because it transpires she rather enjoys doing the cleaning at her official residence, Kesäranta. 

To be fair to the Finns, there have been one or two incidents the rest of Europe would recognise as bona fide political scandals, like in 2008 when the foreign minister was fired for sexting from his work phone. But they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. 

Was there any foreign influence behind the leaked videos?

Another train of thought that's easy to find online, mostly from people outside Finland, is whether the Russians had targeted Marin in a digital espionage campaign and leaked the videos online or to the media. 

The timing of the scandal, they say, is suspicious because it came as Finland announced it would drastically reduce the number of visas given to Russian tourists, and as the Nordic nation nears the end of its NATO accession process.

It's true there were a few examples on Thursday and Friday of bad faith actors amplifying false messaging online about Marin. However, Finns in general are pretty savvy about this sort of misinformation effort, having recently topped the media literacy index, an annual ranking of European countries measuring resistance to fake news. 

Finnish media outlets have speculated about how the first video of Marin was leaked online Wednesday night and concluded it likely came from within her friend group. The second video, which was shared by the celebrity gossip magazine Seiska on Friday morning, was taken by a Finn who is no fan of Marin or her Social Democrat party, and who told Euronews they wanted to damage her politically.

"No one usually dares write anything negative about her. I thought Seiska dares," the source told Euronews. 

"She is clearly a narcissist in my book," they said. 

RONI REKOMAA / LEHTIKUVA / AFP
Finland's Prime minister Sanna Marin leaves after holding a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, on August 19, 2022RONI REKOMAA / LEHTIKUVA / AFP

What about the cocaine comments, media reaction and Marin being on duty?

Much of the furore about the first Marin video centred around whether one of her friends says the word "jauhojengi" - literally, flour gang - supposedly a slang reference to cocaine (which many Finns have said is not even a word at all!)

It was this phrase that prompted the leader of the far-right Finns Party, and an MP from the fringes of the Centre Party -- one of Marin's five-party coalition government partners -- to suggest she takes a drugs test, which she later did, with the results due next week. 

This cocaine claim has been debunked as well, by people like Finnish political commentator Janne Korhonen, who has built a reputation as a straight shooter when it comes to calling out misinformation and explaining Finnish politics on Twitter.  

So how did some of the more lurid reporting around Marin's personal life attract so much attention? Part of the answer to that might potentially be found in the relatively small gene pool of Helsinki media and politics. 

Finnish tabloid newspaper Iltalehti has had the most unabashedly enthusiastic coverage of events this week. The paper's editor-in-chief is married to the head of communications at the National Coalition Party; while one of its star opinion columnists is married to the head of media at the far-right Finns Party -- both in opposition to Sanna Marin -- and there has certainly been some online speculation in the past about the connections between political parties and these high profile media roles. 

So was Marin technically on duty as prime minister, or on holiday in early August when she attended a series of parties, went to bars and restaurants and danced closely with a Finnish music star, who either kissed her neck or leaned close to talk into her ear, depending on which version of events you believe?

It seems she was working, a fact which opponents have pounced on to make it seem like the very security of the country was in peril while Sanna partied. 

Of course, responsibility for national security in Finland doesn't rest only with the prime minister, there are multiple layers of decision-makers in government and the military, and Marin being at a bar or a house party (or potentially at the cinema, or at a family event) don't mean she was uncontactable - she has said her security detail was outside the venue for the house party. 

A video on TikTok - which hopefully is an elaborate joke - shows a man getting a tattoo of Sanna Marin partying, while holding a small bag of white powder

So could there still be a political price to pay for Sanna Marin?

The question about whether Sanna Marin still has a political price to pay for her August antics remains to be seen. 

There have been strong messages of support from the Parliamentary Group chairperson in her own party, and the leader of the Centre Party, the second largest party in the coalition, and the one whose backing she needs to keep the government together. 

But sometimes messages of political support can be strong one day, and evaporate the next. Especially with a general election scheduled anyway for spring 2023 and parties already jostling for positions of power. 

Would it be advantageous for the Centre Party to say they'll leave the government unless the prime minister steps down? That's not inconceivable: in fact, Sanna Marin only got the job of prime minister because her immediate predecessor Antti Rinne was forced out after less than a year in office by the Centre Party in just such a scenario. 

Could Marin's own party, which has tended to attract older voters, decide she's an electoral liability for their core constituents and sideline her? It doesn't seem likely in the short term, because until now she's been considered an electoral asset and upheaval before the start of an election campaign wouldn't be a strong signal to send. 

Still, Marin has enjoyed high levels of public approval for the job she's done as prime minister, especially during the COVID pandemic and in the coming weeks, Finnish media will likely publish polling data which will be an important moment to see what impact -- if any -- Marin's leaked party videos have had on voting intentions. 

For now, most of Finland's high-brow media seems to have moved on, while the tabloid newspaper websites are still packed full of lurid details, gossip, rumour, reaction and speculation about Sanna Marin's personal and work life. 

Over at the country's newspaper of record, Helsingin Sanomat, the most-read stories on Saturday afternoon were about long waits at a Helsinki amusement park, Russia's war in Ukraine, an Ed Sheerin concert at the city's Olympic Stadium, and how swimming pools are becoming more popular in the capital region. 

No sign at all of Sanna Marin in the top 10 stories.