“It was a mixture of relief, excitement and shock. And I had to think is it really happening? It is over? It was confusing, but I’m very grateful” she says in a phone interview.
The 32-year old Minister for Economic Affairs has her work cut out to revitalise a party that won the 2015 general election that brought Juha Sipilä to power, but which slumped to fourth place in April’s election, and has fallen down to fifth place in some recent polls.
“We need to be more interactive with the members, and the politics of the party have to be clear so that people can believe in them” she says.
It was a two horse race to succeed Sipilä, who fell on his sword in the days following the election, and although Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen gave a well-received speech to party delegates in Kouvola on Saturday, it was Lapland MP Kulmuni who charmed them with her speech, and her traditional Finnish national dress. She garnered 1092 votes to Kaikkonen’s 829.
“I think that Keskusta now has to look forward, as it has always done over the last 100 years, and it is my task to take the Centre Party to the next level” says Kulmuni.
“The Centre has always been a party that looks to the future, and making problem solving at the core of the agenda. A belief in the future, and problem solving on the agenda is the key for Centre now” she adds.
Saturday call with Prime Minister
Soon after her win, Kulmuni had a phone call with Prime Minister Antti Rinne (SDP) who offered his congratulations.
Given the scale of the party’s losses in the spring – Keskusta lost 14 seats – Kulmuni was hesitant about committing to another term in government, but says she now fully supports the coalition.
“The cooperation between the Centre and Social Democrats has brought a lot of prosperity to Finland in the past, and we’re excited to work with the government, especially the Social Democrats.”
“I’m a team player. At the election where the Centre lost so heavily the thought was that we would be in opposition and the winners of the election would create the coalition government. So when it ended up that they couldn’t do it, we have always been open to cooperation with the left side and the right said” she tells News Now Finland.
“We have a good government programme and I am 100% committed to that. If we stick to the programme, we can deliver it” she adds.
Municipal elections coming up
Kulmuni will see out the rest of Juha Sipilä’s term as Centre Party Chair, which takes her up to summer 2020.
But she’s got her eyes firmly fixed on the next municipal elections where the Centre Party needs to at least retain the 17.5% of the vote it won at the last municipal elections.
“The first big task is the municipal election in 2021 where the Centre needs to be in the top three. And if we can be in the top three then no doubt we can be in the top place in 2023” at the next general election.
“Of course the aim that I have and that the party has, is that Centre will be the biggest party at the next [general] election. And it takes a lot of work. It’s a long path but I’ve no doubt we can also be successful in that” she says.
“Next generation” support for Kulmuni
Although Katri Kulmuni represents a new generation of Centre Party politicians, party grandees have also praised her.
“It’s a new possibility for the party, and she’s really a next generation leader” says former Centre Party leader and Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen.
“She has enough experience, but at the same time I believe that she can be better than the old politicians, and somehow feel what the young generation are expecting from politics. She has a lot of willingness, and I believe that she can also be tough when needed. My expectations are high” says Vanhanen.
Another of her supporters, freshman MP from Jyväskylä Joonas Könttä says Kulmuni represents “a fresh start for the whole party.”
“She can reach young and old people in the south and north. She represents the news Centre” he adds.
Although Kulmuni laughingly describes herself as “just an ordinary girl from Lapland” it’s clear she’s carved a determined path to become the Centre Party’s third female leader – after Anneli Jääteenmäki and Mari Kiviniemi, who both served as Prime Ministers – and the fifth female leader of Finland’s nine current Parliamentary parties.
Kiviniemi offered her “warm congratulations” on social media, but declined to comment further on Centre Party politics in her new role as Managing Director of the Finnish Commerce Federation.
Parliamentary Group leader Antti Kurvinen remembers the first time Katri Kulmuni showed up at a University of Lapland Centre Party student group meeting back in 2007.
A year older, Kurvinen was studying law while Kulmuni had just begun her studies in international politics.
“She’s a great personality, a tough working lady […] and I’m glad my generation has been elected as the leader of the Centre Party” he says.