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The Finns have been playing it safe with an impending post-pandemic recession and their giant eastern neighbor, Russia, waging a brutal war in Ukraine.
In center-right leader Petteri Orpo, the Finnish electorate backed someone with a record of trust in party politics that dates back decades.
Orpo convinced voters that Finland’s economy was struggling and that he – rather than his free-spirited, freer-spending rival Sanna Marin – was the steady hand Finland needed.
This change will mark a radical change in tone for Finland and for the whole European political scene. Marin, a popular figure on the left of European politics, found herself in hot water last year after a video emerged of her dancing exuberantly at a party with friends. Yet it was his government’s reputation for economic policy that cost him dearly.
In Sunday’s election, Orpo’s Get-it-done character won. He played on deep-rooted (albeit mundane) Finnish fears about rising public debt and offered concrete (if everyday) solutions, such as cuts to public services.
“We are entering government negotiations with the economy as the central issue,” Orpo said as the vote count drew to a close.
Orpo, 53, is a figure whose career has largely passed in the shadow of larger figures, from former Prime Minister Alexander Stubb to his highly popular National Coalition Party colleague President Sauli Niinistö. Not to mention the outgoing prime minister, Marin.
Orpo, the leader of the centre-right NCP, rose steadily through the ranks in key supporting ministerial roles all the way to leader of the main opposition party.
With 14,000 followers, Orpo’s Instagram account lacks the flair of Marin’s – the number of followers is 1 million – but gives an idea of how he wants to present himself: an election day post projects an ordinary image of him with his dogs in the snow.
Another recent entry shows him in the 1990s as a student legislator, with the apparent subtext that he has been a civil servant all his life.
While critics have described his man-of-the-people style as bland, others suggest he’s an efficient operator with a no-nonsense approach.
The coalition negotiations will provide Orpo with an early, high-stakes opportunity to show he can make politics at the highest level. If he is able to hammer out a deal that satisfies both the conservative and liberal wings of the NCP, that would be a solid early success, observers say.
Teivo Teivainen, a political scientist at the University of Helsinki, said he believed Orpo would come under pressure from within his own party to try to strike a deal with Finland’s anti-immigration party first rather than make early overtures to the Social Democrats.
“If he ends up forming a government with the Social Democrats, it will help him if he can show that he first tried hard to form a right-wing coalition,” Teivainen said.
Gradual rise in rank
Orpo was born in Köyliö in southwestern Finland and has a master’s degree in social sciences from nearby Turku University, according to the CV he posted on the parliament’s website. He is married with two children, and his profiles suggest his hobbies include cooking and fishing.
His work with the National Coalition Party dates back to the 1990s, and he later became Agriculture Minister under former Prime Minister NCP Stubb before serving as both Home and Finance Minister under the Prime Minister. Center Party Minister Juha Sipilä.
Orpo challenged Stubb for the leadership of the NCP in 2016 after accusing his boss of allowing voter support to decline. Orpo said he could rebuild unity in the party and bring it back to power, and easily beat Stubb in a party vote.
“We can be the biggest party in the country, we can do much better,” he told supporters after being elected party leader in 2016.
After a narrow electoral defeat in 2019, Orpo chose to move his party into opposition rather than enter into a coalition with the Social Democrats. It has set out to rebuild its status as a traditional center-right economic alternative, willing to cut public spending and limit tax increases.
Ahead of Sunday’s election, he sought to play on deep-seated Finns fears about public debt, portraying Marin and his party as a threat to the country’s fiscal health.
As the NCP’s lead in the polls has eroded in recent months, questions have been raised as to whether Orpo’s somewhat fear-driven campaign could really overtake Marin’s star power, as well as its calls for investing in growth and jobs.
But as Sunday night wore on, Orpo’s strategy would finally be vindicated. At the most dramatic moment of the night, as public broadcaster Yle revealed its closely watched predictions of the end result, Orpo, Marin and Finnish party leader Riikka Purra all watched nervously.
When Yle’s forecast gave the NCP 48 seats, the relief on Orpo’s face was visible – as Marin was forced to contemplate defeat for the first time.
Orpo’s emphasis on prudent fiscal policy appears to have paid off, and by the time he addressed the crowd at the end of the night, his usual attitude of restraint had been replaced by one of jubilation.
His message about bringing fiscal order back to Finland has resonated with his fellow citizens, he said, and his party is now – as he promised in 2016 – the biggest in the country.
“It’s a really big deal,” he said.