HELSINKI, Finland — Last fall, Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland, a 36-year-old leather-jacket-wearing regular at rock festivals, vowed that she wanted to “live like a person my age” and “shake up” the highest office in the government.
A year later, she has done just that.
Marin guided her country through the pandemic with one of Europe’s lowest death rates, then traveled to Sweden in her trademark leather jacket to win support for a momentous bid to join NATO in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Her popularity rating is near its record high. But right now, nobody is talking about any of that.
Videos leaked last week of Marin dancing boisterously at a party have spiraled into a noisy national drama that has split this usually placid nation of 5.5 million between those clamoring for her resignation and those cheering her on (including one man who tattooed his calf with the image of Marin knee-sliding across the floor).
In Finland and beyond, the issue has raised the question of whether, as a young woman leading her country, Marin is held to a different standard than older, male leaders are. It has also fueled a debate about what is — and is not — appropriate behavior for a prime minister. As a result, she has become a polarizing figure in a country that, some say, has not quite caught up with the fact that it has become a beacon of progressive modernity.
“In the space of one generation, Finland has changed from a joyless, buttoned-up Protestant society into something very modern and digital,” said Roman Schatz, a German Finnish author of a book about Finland, who pointed out that dancing was illegal in the country during World War II.
“Sanna Marin is part of that new Finland,” he added. “We’re seeing the birthing pains of Finland 3.0.”
Lauri Tierala, a former adviser to one of Marin’s predecessors, put it this way: “She has become a symbol of what’s acceptable — and what’s not.”
Even by Finnish standards, Marin is exceptionally young and her government exceptionally female.
When she took office in 2019, at 34, Marin was among the youngest leaders in the world — more than 20 years younger than her two immediate male predecessors when they entered office — and headed a coalition of five parties, four of them led by women in their 30s. Ten of her ministers are women, nine are men.
“This hurts a certain type of elderly man,” said Tarja Halonen, who was in her 50s when she became the country’s first female president, in 2000. (She left office a decade ago, but, at 78, is still a year younger than President Joe Biden.)
“They are afraid of the situation — that it’s more and more normal that women of all ages take political roles and that women are now more the rule than the exception,” she added.
Marin is unabashedly leaning into the unease she can inspire, posting images of nursing her daughter on Instagram and strutting to a rock concert in boots and denim shorts. She openly recounts that she grew up in a “rainbow family” because her mother fell in love with a woman after divorcing her father, an alcoholic. The first in her family to go to university, Marin still buys her glittery festival outfits at the flea market. Her husband, a former soccer player, took parental leave to look after their daughter, now 4, when Marin first took office.
“I represent the younger generation,” Marin told the Finnish public broadcaster in October, noting, “It feels sometimes that my mere existence is a provocation to some.”
There has been no shortage of fodder for anyone wanting to be provoked.
Marin’s penchant for partying, which earned her the moniker “Party Sanna” early on, has catapulted her into the headlines before.
“Party Sanna strikes again! Prime Minister Marin had beers, snapped her fingers at the bartender and danced wildly in Helsinki nightlife,” the magazine Seiska headlined last December after Marin was spotted at a bar called Grotesk and, later, at a nightclub called Butchers.
Just a few weeks earlier, the prime minister had taken to her Instagram account, effectively telling the older generation to chill out. “Hey, boom boom boomer, put some ice into your hat, be cooler,” she wrote, quoting a line from a Finnish rap song.
But this time, the reports have not gone away so easily.
After a far-right message board claimed last week that the term “jauhojengi” or “flour gang” — which it interpreted as a reference to cocaine — was shouted in the background of one of the leaked dance videos, the Finnish news media jumped on it. Marin took a drug test, saying that she had never taken drugs, not even as a teenager.
The test came back negative — but the same day, a photograph surfaced of two women exposing their breasts and kissing in the press room of the prime minister’s official residence during another party, rekindling the outrage.
“What’s next? A porn film?” asked Matti Virtanen, a 59-year-old construction worker waiting for the bus in central Helsinki.
“This gives Finland a bad image — I’m ashamed,” said a 74-year-old grandfather, who identified himself only as Johannes.
In fact, the commentary from abroad has been mostly glowing, if not positively envious of Marin’s relative youth.
“I know that clip may be extremely confusing to Americans,” comedian Trevor Noah said about one dance video. “Some countries have leaders who don’t suffer from osteoporosis.”
Bruce Oreck, a former bodybuilder who was the American ambassador to Finland from 2009 to 2015 and still spends part of the year in the country, said that the United States should take note.
“This is so generational,” Oreck, 69, said. “There is an incredible reticence of the older generation to pass on the torch,” he added, noting, “No decision that any of these knuckleheads in Congress are making today will impact them. They’re not going to live through the climate crisis.”
“The purpose of an institution is to serve the current and future population, not to preserve the institution itself,” he said.
Yasmine M’Barek, writing in the German weekly Die Zeit, summed it up this way: “Sanna Marin is the prototype of a successful millennial in politics. Live with it!”
That sentiment was widely shared among young Finns emerging from a row of wooden cabins at a public sauna in Helsinki one recent afternoon to immerse themselves in the Baltic Sea.
“It’s inspirational!” beamed Miisa Myllymäki, a 23-year-old bartender whose friend recently served the prime minister at Flow, one of Finland’s biggest music festivals. “She shows that you can be young and human and still do politics in Finland, and that’s good because sometimes it can feel like politics is just for older people.”
At Siltanen, a music venue in central Helsinki, Johanna Helle, aka DJ Uha, was on the decks. “The media are targeting the prime minister all the time — she’s female and young,” Helle said, calling the episode “click bait.”
Niko Vilhelm, one of the lead singers of Blind Channel, a professed “violent pop” group that represented Finland in the Eurovision song contest last year, said that he had been on a tour bus when his phone lit up with alerts and social media memes about the prime minister’s partying.
“The headlines went crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it. And it hasn’t stopped,” Vilhelm said. “The media needs to chill out.”
Across town, in the sweeping third-floor newsroom of Iltalehti, the tabloid that first released the dance video, Juha Ristamäki, the political editor, defended his decision.
“We are living on high alert because of the Russian threat,” Ristamäki said. “When you look at her behavior against that backdrop, it’s time to raise the question if she was capable of attending to her duty.”
There was nothing wrong with her political record, he acknowledged: “She is very popular and she has had very good moments. When Russia invaded, she was quite effective in starting the application to NATO membership. She has kept a lot of her promises.”
“But was it suitable for the institution to be at 4 a.m. in a nightclub and being drunk,” Ristamäki asked.
Ismo Leikola, a Finnish stand-up comedian who lives in Los Angeles, said he was baffled by the criticism. “She just — danced,” he said.
In his view, the Finnish tourism agency should use the videos to sell his country as “the party capital of the world.”
This week, Marin briefly became tearful when she addressed the fallout from the dispute.
“I’m a human being and sometimes I, too, need joy and fun in the middle of dark clouds,” she said. “I haven’t missed a single day of work and haven’t left a single task undone, and I won’t even in the middle of all this, because all of this will pass and together we must make this country stronger.”