Analysis: Sanna Marin's defeat puts European socialists in tight spot

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin was considered one of the most popular socialist leaders across Europe.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin was considered one of the most popular socialist leaders across Europe. Copyright European Union, 2023.
Copyright European Union, 2023.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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The Finnish election adds a new chapter in a list of electoral defeats by socialist parties, including in Sweden, Italy and France.


Sanna Marin, the charismatic Finnish prime minister whose popularity exceeded national borders and attracted worldwide attention, has been removed from power.

Although her party, the social democrats, managed to win three seats compared to the 2019 elections, the results left the incumbent in the third spot, right behind the centre-right National Coalition Party and the far-right populist Finns Party.

For the Socialists & Democrats (S&D), the group in the European Parliament that gathers socialist lawmakers from all across the European Union, Marin's departure represents yet another chapter in a series of stinging electoral disappointments.

In early March, the Social Democratic Party (SDE) of Estonia came fifth in the country's general election, with 9.2% of votes.

In September, Sweden, a reliably socialist stronghold, changed course and elevated Ulf Kristersson, the leader of the liberal-conservative Moderate Party, to the premiership.

That same month, the Democratic Party (PD) of Enrico Letta fell below expectations in Italy's general election, losing seats in both chambers of parliament and paving the way for the victory of Giorgia Meloni and her hard-right, three-party coalition.

Also last year, Anne Hidalgo, the candidate of the Socialist Party (PS), received an astonishing 1.75% of votes in the first round of France's presidential election, a defeat of historic proportions that pushed the 53-year-old party into the depths of irrelevance.

Although each country is a unique amalgam of political traditions, national culture and social beliefs, the emergence of a Europe-wide pattern is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore for the socialists.

"There are two things that are coming together. On the one hand, it's a difficult time for parties in government, with the rising costs of living and high energy prices," Nicolai von Ondarza, a political scientist and senior researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), said.

"Secondly, I would say that, in particular, centre-left parties have had troubles for the last 20 years."

Despite important wins in the last few years, most notably when Olaf Scholz succeeded Angela Markel as German Chancellor after 16 years of conservative-led governments, the upward trend appears to be stalling.

"The recent elections showed us that this was only a short trend and that if at all, the centre-left parties can only govern in more complex coalitions," von Ondarza told Euronews.

"Socialists are hardly a dominating force in any European country."

Iratxe García, the leader of the S&D group, challenged this pessimistic outlook and interpreted the Finnish poll as citizens giving Marin's term in office a "positive assessment."

"However, the rise of the right and the extreme right is something to worry about," García told Euronews.

"We will keep a close eye on the negotiations and the programme of the new government so that they don't backslide away from the pro-European agenda set by the previous government."

A gradual tilt to the right

With Marin all but guaranteed to be denied a second run as prime minister, the power dynamics in the European Council, the institution that defines the EU's political orientation, are set to shift once again, further deepening a tilt to the right that began last year.

Out of the 27 member states, socialists will have five heads of government: Olaf Scholz in Germany, Pedro Sánchez in Spain, Mette Frederiksen in Denmark, António Costa in Portugal and Robert Abela in Malta.


Three of them – Frederiksen, Costa and Abela – were re-elected last year, while Scholz is expected to remain in power until autumn 2025. 

On the other side of the table, liberals rule over France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Estonia and Slovenia. A variety of conservative parties dominate the remaining countries, from the mainstream European People's Party (EPP) in Greece, Austria, Sweden and likely soon Finland, to the hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) in Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic.

"This underlines the trend of a European Council that's more tilted towards the right in economic, social and environmental issues, but also of a European Council that will still remain united, for instance, on how to respond to the war in Ukraine," said von Ondarza.

"The effect will be more gradual than revolutionary. Finland is not huge, after all, but it is another piece in the puzzle that leads to a European Council dominated more by the centre-right."

Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva
Pedro Sánchez (left) and Sanna Marin (right) were two of the most recognisable figures among European socialsit.Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva

The configuration in Brussels drastically raises the stakes ahead of Spain's general election, expected to be held no later than 10 December. 


Pedro Sánchez and his 143-year-old socialist party, known as PSOE, are currently trailing in opinion polls behind the conservative opposition of Alberto Núñez Feijóo, whose possible accession to power would in all likelihood necessitate an alliance with Vox, a far-right party polling third.

Eyeing a Spanish triumph, the EPP has ratcheted up criticism against Sánchez's executive, as reflected in a recent session of the European Parliament, during which EPP lawmakers pushed to include Spain and Malta in a debate around the rule of law after the socialists targeted Greece.

"The polling is rather independent between European countries and to win in one country doesn't necessarily lead to a win in another country," Manuel Müller, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), told Euronews.

"Of course, it would be most welcome for the EPP if they were to drive home the victory in Spain. On the other hand, if they lose in Spain, if the socialists recover and can form a government again, this will be a morale boost for the socialists."

Road to 2024

Whereas in Spain the PSOE is a powerful force and a formidable competitor, in Poland, the other big EU country that goes to the polls this year, the socialists are split into small-sized parties that have virtually no chance of achieving power on their own.


In fact, the Polish race is effectively a contest between the Eurosceptic hard-right of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and the pro-European alliance Civic Coalition (KO) headed by Donald Tusk, a former president of the European Council and one of the most prominent EPP politicians.

By contrast, socialists are polling much more favourably in the upcoming elections of Slovakia, where they remain in the opposition, and Luxembourg, where they are part of the liberal-led coalition.

The results of all these national polls will inevitably be seen as a bellwether of the 2024 European Parliament elections, an occasion that will renew the 705 MEPs inside the hemicycle together with the presidencies of the European Commission and the European Council.

The last time the socialists won the largest number of seats inside the European Parliament was in 1994, when the bloc consisted of 12 member states, including the United Kingdom. Since then, the EPP has dominated every election, a control that analysts credit to the enlargement of Eastern Europe.

This has led to an interrupted string of European Commission presidents affiliated with the EPP, most recently Ursula von der Leyen, who has come under pressure from some of her peers to adopt a harder stance on migration and slow down her ambitious environmental agenda.


The latest projection by Europe Elects, a poll aggregator that tracks every European country, puts the EPP in the lead with 163 seats and the S&D second with 143, figures that are in line with a steady pattern but fall below the results obtained by both parties in 2019.

European Union, 2023.
Ursula von der Leyen, a prominent member of the EPP, is under pressure for his ambitious environmental agenda.European Union, 2023.

In a statement to Euronews, Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group, was certain his party's surge would continue and the victories in Sweden and Finland would be replicated in Poland and Spain.

"Crisis times are EPP times and with a war on the continent, when the livelihoods of people are threatened by energy prices and inflation, people choose reliable politics," Weber said.

"We are confident we can continue the positive momentum, especially in the Spanish and Polish elections later this year. One thing is clear the EU will be more EPP blue in 2024 than many people expect!"

But Manuel Müller warned the overlapping crises of recent years – the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia's war in Ukraine, energy crunch, soaring inflation – would first and foremost benefit disruptive far-right parties rather than the EPP itself, which is considered part of the European establishment.


"I wouldn't say that Europe is turning towards the European People's Party. I would say that the successes in the elections were mostly due to different national constellations," Müller said.

"We just have to get used to the fact that we are in a permanent crisis. Political volatility and uncertainty are growing. And, of course, this makes it easier for the far-right to have a populist appeal."

Katarina Barley, an S&D MEP who serves as one of the European Parliament's vice-presidents, struck a similar note and lashed out against the EPP for teaming up with far-right parties to achieve power.

"This pattern seems to be becoming habitual among European conservatives under EPP leadership. To expand power in the European Council, EPP member parties collaborate with Europe's enemies," Barley said in an email, in which she admitted the Finnish elections were "no cause for celebration."

"Conservatives bear a special responsibility: whoever gets involved with Europe's enemies buries the European project. It is important to remember that, especially during the 2024 European elections run-up."

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