"The populist right and the extreme right cannot be 'tamed' once in power"

Former Finnish minister Hanna Sarkkinen was in charge of the social affairs and health portfolios in Sanna Marin's government until April this year, after an election in which the Conservatives won the government and the far right was the second most voted force.

Hanna Sarkkinen (Oulunsalo, 1988) was Finland's Minister of Social Affairs and Health from 29 June 2021 until the end of Sanna Marin's term in office. In the four years she has been in power, the governing coalition - formed by four parties: the Social Democratic Party of Finland, the Centre Party, the Green League, the Left Alliance and the Swedish People's Party - took decisions that have changed the course of the country, including the country's controversial entry into NATO. In this interview, Sarkkinen, now the Left Alliance MP for the Oulu district, talks about the experience of being part of a coalition government, her decision to support Finland's NATO membership and how to deal with an alliance between conservatives and the far right such as the one currently governing her country.

On 20 June the government of Sanna Marin, in which the Left Alliance held two portfolios, Education and Social Affairs and Health, was dissolved. How do you assess Marin's government and the Left Alliance's participation in it in general

The four years of our government were difficult because almost all the time we had to manage some kind of crisis. First the covid crisis, then Russia's brutal attack on Ukraine, and after that the energy crisis. These years have been, in many ways, the most difficult since the Second World War.

The government managed the crises quite well. And even in the midst of them we were able to renew and improve many of the structures of our society. We also strengthened resources in education, health, social and labour rights. The employment rate reached record levels at the end of our mandate. It was the best government in decades and the best majority government that could be formed from the composition of that parliament.

Public opinion on NATO membership changed dramatically when the war began.

Of course, there are many things with which I am not 100% satisfied. The government could have done much more on environmental policy, for example. There are many things where it should have done more or done better. But on the balance, in my opinion, there are more positives than negatives.

The members of the Left Alliance gave their strong support for participation in the government throughout the term of office, although there was criticism of many of the issues in the executive's policy. We are not a big party, so people understand that sometimes you have to make compromises to have some kind of influence. People saw that we made an effort and had a lot of influence, even if not everything was perfect.

After the April elections, Finland's government consists of a coalition of three right-wing parties, with the participation of the Swedish People's Party of Finland, led by the National Coalition (Kokoomus), and in which the far-right Finns party has a prominent position. How has the Finnish left interpreted the results of these latest elections?

Actually, there are four right-wing parties in the new government [referring to the Swedish People's Party]. The crisis years were difficult and that eroded some of the support for the parties in the Marin government. Maybe people wanted a change.

The main issue in the election was the public debt. We had to go into debt to survive the crisis years and the opposition parties said we were overspending. People started to worry about the public debt and this was the main cause of the election results. Also the price of petrol and electricity, and the opposition to the environmental policy of the Marin government, were something that made people vote for the right-wing parties.

We have to say that the populist right and the extreme right can pose a real threat to equality, human rights and democracies.

The Left Alliance lost some support to the social democrats because some of our voters wanted to make sure that Marin and his government would continue, and that the social democrats would remain the main party. That was not the case.

I would say that we need to tell people more clearly that environmental policy does not threaten them. The threat is climate change. We also need to be more "populist" in our language and use the new social networks to better attract voters.

How does the Left Alliance explain the rise of Finns to second force in the country? With 20% of the vote and 46 MPs, Riikka Purra's party was only two seats behind Kokoomus and beat Marin's Social Democratic Party by three.

Unfortunately, there is anti-immigration sentiment and even racist thinking among voters. Finns exploits, spreads and creates these feelings.

Inflation and gas prices were some of the reasons for Finns' success in the elections. They made many populist promises to lower prices, but they have no policy to fulfil them.

Finns also won votes by opposing environmental policies and creating the image that these were threatening the way people live. They also won votes by opposing woke issues, such as the new legislation we passed in government that improved the rights of trans people. Finally, Finns are good at using social media, especially TikTok.

What is the political programme of this conservative coalition and how has it been deployed so far?

They have not passed any laws yet, but based on their government programme, we expect cuts in social benefits, such as housing and unemployment benefits. There will be cuts in public spending, such as social services and health. Immigration legislation will also be tightened and labour legislation will be relaxed and the position of trade unions will be worsened. There will be tax cuts for the rich.

I would say these are traditionally right-wing policies: take from the poor, weaken public services and labour rights, give more to the rich. And to top it all off, anti-immigration laws and racist rhetoric.

One of the issues that generates most tensions on the European left is NATO, especially in the countries bordering Russia, and especially after the outbreak of military conflict in Ukraine in 2022. Last year the Finnish parliament approved the country's entry into NATO, a decision that was not, however, endorsed in a referendum. How did this debate develop and what impact has it had on the Left Alliance? Why was a section of the party in favour of crossing what was hitherto considered a red line?

I voted in favour of joining NATO, as did the majority of our parliamentary group. The issue divided our group as well as our members and voters. In the end we took the decision that everyone is free to vote on the basis of their own judgement, as the issue was not in the government's programme and circumstances had changed dramatically.

Public opinion on NATO membership changed dramatically when the war began. Strong opposition to joining the Alliance turned into strong support for joining.

Red lines changed as reality changed. The war changed many things.

Circumstances changed when Russia attacked Ukraine. Russia made it clear that it does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbours and that it is ready to wage full-scale war in Europe and kill people. We have 1,300 kilometres of border with Russia. We too were historically part of the Russian Empire. What seemed impossible then began to seem possible. Could Putin's neo-imperialist Russia also attack us? To prevent it from happening, we needed friends. And if it happened, we needed friends. So the red lines changed when the reality changed. The war has changed a lot of things.

The decision to vote in favour was for me a very difficult one. The problems in NATO remain, but the threat from Russia has become, in my view, a bigger problem.

What political, social and economic impact do you think Finland's NATO membership will have?

That remains to be seen. So far we haven't seen any changes, impacts or drastic reactions.

The relationship with Russia was ruined when Russia attacked Ukraine, so there hasn't been much change in this respect either. Military spending was already over 2% of GDP, so there has been no change there.

We need to be able to tell people that environmental policy is not a threat, but that climate change is the threat.

I hope that there will not be a culture of "self-censorship" in the Finnish Parliament in the future, where critical views towards NATO allies are not welcome. This may happen in the Finnish political culture and it is something that worries me. For example, we need to continue to talk about the problems in Turkey, to take into account the position of the Kurdish people or to be critical of US policies when there are reasons to do so.

The American journalist Lily Lynch has written a couple of articles very critical of the coalition government of which she was a member, of which I would like to ask her opinion. In the first, published in Sidecar, the blog of the well-known New Left Review, Lynch wrote: "Light on substance but eminently Instagrammable, this political tendency bases its appeal not on a coherent ideological perspective, but on a sense of millennial contentment. Its modernising ethos owes more to the New World than to the Old; it is as much at home at the annual Bilderberg Group meeting and the World Economic Forum stalls as it is at a disco or a Pride parade. Under Marin, this new progressivism has used the moral capital of Nordic pacifism, as well as the traditions of feminism, neutrality and social democracy linked to it, to destroy it." In another article, Lynch mentioned Marin alongside German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas as three politicians whose public appearances and speeches have helped soften the image of the Atlantic Alliance in the eyes of the public.

Well, that is your opinion, and there are others. I have not read these articles, but perhaps the author was unaware of the government's full policy programme, including legislative reforms and ambitious investments, and focused instead on the person of Prime Minister Marin and NATO. And perhaps she also does not understand the realities of Finnish political life and our geopolitical status as a small country bordering Putin's neo-imperialist Russia. Or maybe he sees things differently than I do.

There is, of course, room for criticism of the Marin government from a left-wing perspective and I will always welcome debate. In Finnish politics agreements are always a reality and we have always had coalition governments.

In the political left there is always tension between reformism and more revolutionary politics. It can always be said that we did not do enough on social, labour or economic policies, or that our security policy was wrong.

We need to make visible and make it known that the right-wing government is destroying labour rights and that this will be bad for the people and for society.

Let the debate go on, but I am ready to defend the work we did, even if the circumstances were very difficult and we did not end up succeeding in everything. We could not, for example, pass the necessary capital tax reforms because two of the parties in government opposed them.

In February you visited Spain to attend the inauguration of an International Feminist Meeting at the Complutense University of Madrid, where you met with the Minister for Equality, Irene Montero. How do you assess the Spanish coalition government between PSOE and Unidas Podemos (UP)?

I don't have enough information about the previous Spanish coalition government to evaluate it, but it seemed that there were many parallels in equality policies and similar legislative reforms between the Spanish and Finnish governments.

Although the results of the 23 July elections will not allow for the formation of a government at the state level, in Spain, as in other European countries - including Finland - there are several autonomous governments formed by the Partido Popular (PP) and Vox. Given the Finnish experience, past and present, what advice would you give to left-wing parties to oppose such coalition governments?

I hope someone can give me some advice! I don't have the answers. But in Finland we have to tell the population that expelling immigrants will not improve the position of workers and the poorest. And we need to make visible and let people know that the right-wing government is destroying labour rights and that it will be a bad thing for the people and for society. We need to be able to tell people that environmental policy is not a threat, but that climate change is the threat.

As for the "traditional conservative right", we have to say that the populist right and the far right cannot be "tamed" once they come to power. And they can pose a real threat to equality, human rights and democracies that remain in power.