Iraqi-born Finnish MP backs Sanna Marin in tight election race

Former refugee Hussein al-Taee battles far right's anti-immigrant narrative

Hussein al-Taee is running for another term in Finland's parliament. Photo: SDP
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A Finnish MP who fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a child is backing Prime Minister Sanna Marin for a second term when the Nordic nation goes to the polls on Sunday.

Hussein al-Taee is pitting his story of a Finnish equivalent of the “American Dream” against the anti-immigrant message of a far-right party threatening to unseat Ms Marin.

Although Ms Marin, 37, has star appeal abroad and has steered Finland towards joining Nato, domestic concerns could see her Social Democrats lose power.

Polls show the party in a three-way scrum with the nationalist Finns Party and the centre-right National Coalition, which accuses Ms Marin of mismanaging public finances.

The Finns Party, described as “openly racist” by Ms Marin, wants to slash immigration and led criticism of the prime minister for her youthful partying with friends.

Mr al-Taee defended her record by saying Finland had withstood Covid-19 better than neighbouring Sweden and backed Ukraine despite sharing a 1,340-kilometre border with Russia.

The war became visible in Finland when cars with Russian number plates flocked to Helsinki Airport after crossing one of Russia’s few EU land borders, prompting Ms Marin’s government to curb tourist visas.

A government that made headlines because of its all-female top team when it came to power in 2019 is also aiming to make Finland carbon-neutral by the middle of the next decade.

“I feel Sanna Marin has done an amazing job,” Mr al-Taee, who is running for another term in Sunday's election, told The National.

“Marin is known all around the world. She’s been the face of Finland and a very good face, a very positive face of Finland,” he said. “So I definitely give her a good grade.”

The Baghdad-born Mr al-Taee, now 39, arrived in Finland as a 10-year-old refugee after his father’s opposition to Saddam led to imprisonment in Iraq and then the family’s exile in Saudi Arabia.

Mr al-Taee worked as a peace negotiator before he was elected to parliament in 2019.

As well as boosting education and welfare, his pet causes include a ban on fur farming and bolstering the rights of the indigenous Sami people who live in far northern Lapland.

But his party is having to contend with the anti-immigrant narrative of Riikka Purra’s Finns Party, which says gangland warfare in Sweden shows the risks of a soft border policy.

It comes despite forecasts suggesting Finland will need 35,000 new workers per year to plug labour shortages occurring in much of Europe.

Mr al-Taee is hoping that migrant “success stories” will eventually “counter the ideology of becoming closed and building walls rather than building bridges”.

His campaign message is “that the American dream actually happens in Finland, that every human being can dream of becoming whatever he or she wants in this country, and that we have to maintain that dream for all Finns and everybody who lives here”.

“I came here to this country when I was 10 years old from a refugee camp, as a quota refugee. Fast forward 25 years, I became a Member of Parliament. If that's not dreams coming true, then I don't know what is,” he said.

Finland cleared the last major hurdle to Nato membership on Wednesday when Turkey approved its bid after months of obstruction.

Unlike Sweden, Finland has persuaded Ankara that it is meeting Turkish demands to clamp down on Kurdish dissidents.

But with Nato membership enjoying broad support among the parties, there is little sign it will give Ms Marin a bounce in the polls.

Mr al-Taee has tried to argue that a right-wing government would not strike a balance between joining Nato and maintaining Finland’s reputation as a peace broker.

“Our diplomacy has done a good job in explaining to different parts of the world that we are joining Nato not to threaten anybody, but actually for our own peace and our own security,” he said.

He regards Finland as an “under-the-radar broker” for dialogue in the Middle East.

“We invite different parties to come to Finland and have dialogue here about sustainable peace in the Middle East,” he said.

“I think we should continue being this table where different, potentially conflicting parties can come together, come around and have a dialogue.”

A messy result on Sunday would make for tricky coalition negotiations, with Ms Marin ruling out any alliance with the Finns Party.

One of the five parties in her current coalition has already said it does not support an extension.

The National Coalition Party, led by former finance minister Petteri Orpo, has promised to create 100,000 new jobs and increase nuclear power consumption if he comes to power.

The centre-right party has not ruled out working with the Finns Party but could also find itself in an awkward alliance with the Social Democrats.

The parties share the same climate goals but could find it difficult to agree on economic policies.

Updated: March 31, 2023, 5:55 PM