People & Society

Sanna Marin: A new era in women's leadership following Benazir Bhutto

Youth fascinates people. Combine fascination with youth to the perennial attraction to power, and you have an amalgamation that few can look away from. Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 34, of Finland embodies both youth and power as she ascended to become her nation’s premier, earlier this month. On 10 December, Marin became the youngest elected prime minister not just in Finland, but in the world.

Previously, she was the Transport and Communications Minister in a five-party coalition that was leading the government. Her predecessor, Prime Minister Antti Rinne, had to step down due to a postal strike that led to over half a billion Euros worth of losses to the Finnish economy. In his place, Sanna Marin was nominated to lead, by the ruling coalition. The intriguing fact about this political alliance is that all five parties are led by women of which four, including Marin, are under 35.

This female, youthful pivot for politics in one of the most relatively politically stable countries (with a widely “happy” population) is a welcome change in a world that seems to keep regularly turning itself upside down.

Sanna Marin has an exceptional background for a national leader. She comes from a working-class family. After her father left them, she was raised first by her single mother and then jointly by her female partner in a financially struggling household. In a New York Times article, she spoke about how alien the people in politics felt to her as well as how it was difficult for her to discuss her family’s situation in her youth.

Marin joined politics after completing her education and then solidly worked her way up from municipal politics to national prominence, winning an election in 2015 to parliament. Until the election this year in April 2019, that saw the coalition she is part of formed, Finnish politics during her parliamentary career saw men in more prominent positions than women. This year’s election was a particularly jagged one for Finland’s political parties as the centrist position in their nation’s politics collapsed and no party could achieve a majority.

The election was also fraught as Marin's party saw off a challenge from the ultranationalist and far right Finns Party. When Antti Rinne, the prime minister appointed after that election, lost support from the Centre Party in his coalition, Sanna Marin was chosen to lead the government.

As a female head of the government, Marin is part of a wider trend this year (and decade) of multiple women being elected to head governments and states. This year saw Brigitte Bierlein in Austria, Sophie Wilmès in Belgium, Mette Frederiksen in Denmark, Maia Sandu in Moldova and Zuzana Čaputová in Slovakia win elections to the top positions in their respective countries. Whereas Sandu lost her position by November, Bolivia saw Jeanine Áñez installed as the head of her government after a coup.

Finland however, is part of a group of nations known as Scandinavia, and among the Nordic ethnic group. With Marin’s elevation to power, now four out of the five Nordic nations have female heads of government. These four, alongside Finland and Denmark include Norway and Iceland. Iceland elected Katrín Jakobsdóttir in 2017 and Norway has had Erna Solberg as the head of its government since 2013.

One of this decade’s most prominent, and still incumbent, young women leaders has been Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand. She presaged this current trend in recent years, of women in their thirties becoming heads of government by being elected to lead New Zealand in October 2017. Jacinda Ardern also had a child while being Prime Minister of New Zealand, thus securing her position as only the second prime minister to give birth while in office. The first of course was Pakistan’s own Benazir Bhutto.

When speaking of women prime ministers who broke glass ceilings, one cannot avoid discussing Benazir Bhutto, who came from a privileged background, but overcame multiple daunting odds to become the first woman elected to lead a Muslim country, i.e, Pakistan. Pakistanis can relate to the sense of hope that rises out of getting an energetic, young woman as a prime minister. This has in part to do with the tales of expectation from when Benazir Bhutto became the prime minister in 1988, after the long night of the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship.

The circumstances under which Benazir rose to prominence and then became prime minister are much more different than the relatively sedate career path of the women who have risen to lead in this decade. Benazir saw multiple members of her family killed, was jailed for extended periods of time, to the point that solitary confinement under Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship became life threatening for her health. After her release she continued to resist his dictatorship and succeeded his government to become prime minister twice. On the day that she was assassinated while campaigning for elections in 2007, 27 December, it is instructive to consider lessons from her life and those of other female world leaders.

Many of the women who rose to great prominence as leaders in the previous generation came from privileged families in which the male relatives who were leaders, had been violently struck down. For example, Benazir’s life was permanently scarred by the overthrow and execution of her father, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Violent fates struck the male relatives of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Corazon Aquino, Sheikh Hasina Wajid, Khaleda Zia and Aung San Suu Kyi. Imprisonment for some of these women, (such as Benazir’s stretches in jail and solitary confinement during the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship and after) were not unknown. Some like Indira Gandhi and also Benazir Bhutto, came to tragic, violent ends.

With their more middle-class backgrounds, the career paths of women like Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, Kim Campbell and Helen Clark more closely resembled the socially mobile crop of women prime ministers from this decade. It does seem that nations with more social mobility allow more women to rise to the top. We may be turned off from the violence associated with the governments of Aung San Suu Kyi, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina Wajid and Khaleda Zia. However, it must not be forgotten that Margaret Thatcher’s government and Golda Meir’s saw their countries wage war and preside over social dislocation.

Clearly though, in some parts of the world, we are living in a less violent era than previously. However, this does not make the practice of politics less fraught, regardless of gender. In practicing politics, it may not be amiss for men or women to pick up lessons that a previous generation of rare women leaders picked up and practiced, to govern for their people. They certainly navigated a more difficult era in a time that was lonelier for professional women and certainly, less gender equal than now.

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