Prime Minister and Social Democratic Party (SDP) chair Sanna Marin squared off against opposition National Coalition Party (NCP) chair Petteri Orpo in a debate hosted by the Association of Political Journalists on Friday.
With the parliamentary elections scheduled for April this year, the two party heads discussed topics ranging from the next government's possible coalitions to economic policy.
Marin: Finns Party openly racist
Orpo's NCP has held a lead in the polls for the past year, while Marin's SDP slid to third place behind the nationalist Finns Party in the most recent poll.
Early in the debate, Marin hinted that the NCP was serious about pursuing cooperation with the Finns Party. Marin emphasised that an SDP election victory would be the only way to prevent the formation of a right-leaning government.
Orpo denied that his party was strategising to form a government with the Finns Party prior to the elections.
Marin also jabbed at the Finns Party directly, calling it "openly racist" and defended the SDP's decision to rule out any government partnership with the Finns Party in advance of the April election.
"Looking at the speeches of individual MPs, these speeches have been racist and genuinely hostile to certain minorities. There is no denying this; it is a fact. I don't understand why we politicians should smile and pretend that these speeches are not real," Marin said.
Marin noted that the Finns Party has changed over the past decade, becoming more conservative and that it was no longer the party of Timo Soini, who was foreign minister in 2015-19.
Marin also recalled that Orpo himself agreed with then-prime minister Juha Sipilä to end the government partnership with the Finns Party after Jussi Halla-aho became the party's chair in 2017.
'Red-blue' coalition would require compromises
Marin and Orpo both reiterated that their parties are willing to join the same government if the other party claims a victory in this April's election. In a recent poll published by Maaseudun Tulevaisuus, this was the most popular hypothetical coalition after the election.
"It is possible, if the NCP gives up tax cuts and other daydreams, then we are certainly ready to negotiate and discuss. That does not mean that we are ready to give up our values or principles," Marin emphasised.
Orpo responded, pointing to four years ago when the NCP and SDP failed to reach an agreement on economic policy with then-party chair Antti Rinne.
"The economic policy line has to change. Not because the NCP says so, but because economic experts say we are heading towards a shipwreck," Orpo warned.
In the debate, Marin assured the SDP that the party wants to balance public finances and will soon publish a programme outlining austerity measures.
"This is new, that the SDP also wants to balance public finances, because you have done nothing to achieve this during this term of government," Orpo retorted to Marin.
Marin, however, questioned proposed tax cuts put forward by the NCP.
"I don't understand why tax cuts should be given to the wealthiest in society, which would be financed by cuts to social security," Marin pointed out.
According to Orpo, the SDP and NCP could find common ground on numerous issues such as preschool education for two-year-olds and European policy in general.