Katri Kulmuni interview: Centre Party leader is down, but not yet out

The Lapland MP faces two credible challengers from within the party to be its leader - with delegates voting at a September convention in Oulu.

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Katri Kulmuni / Credit: Keskusta

Time might be running out for Katri Kulmuni‘s short reign as leader of the Centre Party. Either that or she’s gearing up for a triumphant second act.

The Lapland MP stepped down from her finance minister job in late spring over an expenses issue; the party is limping along with barely double digit support in opinion polls; and Kulmuni is facing two credible challenges from her own colleagues as party chair at the upcoming conference in Oulu in early September.

But it doesn’t mean she’s giving up without a fight. Fresh from meeting supporters on a summer listening tour, Kulmuni has her battle lines drawn and knows her own strengths against Minister of Science and Culture Annika Saarikko and Centre Party Vice Chairman Petri Honkonen. One other candidate, Ostrobothnia businessman Ilkka Tiainen, has also announced he will run but is considered a long shot.

Saarikko might come across better in debates, and in a straw poll of regional party bosses garnered more support; but Honkonen is still to refine his own policy positions and will need to embark on a nationwide tour to lift his profile, so that probably puts Kulmuni in the middle of the pack right now.

“Of course as the current leader of the party I have the pathway, and I’m heading forward. And I see the way of equality on wherever you come from, it’s the way for greening society, getting more renewable energy resources, it’s the way for equality in social terms and if someone else has some other choices then they bring those out” Kulmuni tells News Now Finland.

Kulmuni, often cast as the ‘doubting Thomas’ of the five coalition party leaders, says she’s committed to the government programme agreed in June 2019, which was renewed again in December that year.

“We support the programme fully, and that needs to be implemented. We are for the better economy of Finland, we are for renewable energy sources, we are for the benefits of roads and pensions and if those are made we are very committed to the government.”

The Centre Party under Katri Kulmuni, she says, is in favour of political stability especially after six months of coronavirus crisis.

“For the government to be strong, it needs to have a strong Centre Party” she adds.

MP Joonas Könttä (Centre) and Katri Kulmuni (Centre) on a local election tour in Central Finland, 27th July 2020 / Credit: @joonaskontta Twitter

Summer tour to meet voters 

While many Finns took holidays in July, Kulmuni criss-crossed the country with 70 stops along the way – no shaking hands on this traditional style political tour, but plenty of coffees in market squares and socially-distanced conversations with potential voters.

“I think I haven’t been hand-shaking since March” says Kulmuni.

“It’s the job that politicians do, and you can’t really do it during the coronavirus time. It was the first time in July I was able to [go on tour] and I was really thankful people were able to come across and have discussions about political themes.”

Freshman Jyväskylä MP Joonas Könttä accompanied Kulmuni on several of her recent stops and says he was surprised by the level of debate from members of the public, not just interested in local issues but engaging on international topics like the EU’s €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund.

Katri Kulmuni (Centre) meets voters during a summer tour / Credit: FB

“I was worried and Katri as well before the tour [about the turnout] but the welcome has been very warm. Of course it depends on the time, and the place, but in my opinion it was very successful” explains Könttä.

“I would say it was a pretty summery event. We talked about coronavirus, how Finland has been doing in that. We talked about the new euro aid package, and there was one elderly man who said we didn’t do that bad, did we. A very Finnish sentence. I was a bit surprised because I was expecting a bit more attitude against the RU package” he adds.

The forestry industry and new education opportunities for the region were also topics of discussion, as well as other local issues which are typically front and centre ahead of municipal elections.

Spring scandals and municipal elections

The spring of 2020 is probably a time that Kulmuni would rather forget, with an ignominious fall from grace over more than €50,000 in consultant fees paid by two government ministries for public speaking lessons.

For sure those lessons helped make Kulmuni more confident in front of the cameras which in turn benefited the country during the 2019 EU presidency and beyond – Kulmuni was lauded online for her pleasantly-accented English in a Brussels interview, for example.

But to avoid any hint of impropriety the fees should have been covered by the Centre Party instead of from public funds, and despite Kulmuni stepping up to repay the money herself, she ultimately fell on her sword.

File picture of Finance Minister Katri Kulmuni (Centre) at government press briefing, 20th March 2020 / Credit: Laura Kotila, VNK

“A political leader needs to take political responsibility, and that’s something I’ve taken” she says, matter-of-factly.

“A leader needs to not only take political responsibility but also take care that the government can function properly 100% and take care of the party that it can fun function properly without any harm. So in that sense I took the political responsibility” Kulmuni adds.

All of this year’s events involving Katri Kulmuni and the Centre Party more widely are playing out against the backdrop of next spring’s municipal elections. If she survives the leadership challenge, Kulmuni would have to at least sustain the party’s relative success from 2017 when they came third in popular vote, but won the most seats of any party by a large margin. A slump in the polls that mirrors the dramatic loss of support at the 2019 general election would seal her fate and she’d almost certainly have to step aside.

“It’s always a local election, and I’m rallying to have the best possible result. After the month of going throughout Finland I’m convinced there are a lot of enthusiasts in the Centre Party and people are curious about it, and no doubt we will do great work in next year’s municipal elections” she explains.

“But it requires also the time of the leader, so I have all the time to do the work for the municipal election success.”

Minister of Finance Katri Kulmuni (Centre) at government coronavirus budget talks, Helsinki, 7th April 2020 / Credit: Laura Kotila, VNK