Science and culture minister Annika Saarikko joins Centre Party leadership race

The leadership election takes place in early September with some level of dissatisfaction within the party that it is not doing better in the polls under Katri Kulmuni's leadership.

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File picture Minister of Science & Culture Annika Saarikko (Centre), July 2020 / Credit: Annika Saarikko FB

Minister of Science and Culture Annika Saarikko is joining the Centre Party leadership race, in a bid to oust incumbent Katri Kulmuni.

Saarikko only returned from maternity leave on Thursday and already announced her plan to challenge Kulmuni at the party’s autumn convention.

The minister says she is running because “the situation with the Centre Party is dangerously bad, and needs an alternative.”

The southwest Finland MP says as party leader she would support the Prime Minister and adds “a functioning government is in the interests of Finns, and also of the Centre Party.” Saarikko is generally considered to be more amenable to keeping the Centre Party in government, whereas under Kulmuni’s leadership there has been frequent talk about when, rather than if, the Centre Party might quit the current five-party coalition government over policy differences and to assert themselves as a standalone entity in the eyes of potential voters ahead of the 2021 municipal elections.

Speaking to journalists on Thursday, Saarikko said if she becomes the party leader she would stay in her current role as Minister of Science and Culture rather than become the minister of finance, a role traditionally held by the second largest party in government. That job is currently filled by another former Centre Party leader, and ex-prime minister, Matti Vanhanen.

File picture of Katri Kulmuni at government press briefing, 2nd June 2020 / Credit: Lauri Heikkinen, VNK

Why is there a leadership challenge?

The Centre Party has been one of the biggest, and strongest, parties in the Finnish political landscape over the course of the past several decades and in the last 20 years there have been four Centre Party prime ministers.

However at the 2019 election, facing a backlash from voters after four years of austerity politics, the Centre Party slumped to fourth place in the polls: down 7% and losing 18 MPs.

Former PM Juha Sipilä quit as leader of the party last autumn and Lapland MP Kulmuni was chosen as his replacement.

Since then a Kulmuni-lead Centre Party has struggled to make headway with voters and polls in the low double digits. In late spring she resigned as minister of finance after it was revealed two ministries spent more than €50,000 on public speaking coaching for her – which critics said should have been paid out of party funds, not public funds. Although Kulmuni paid the money back herself, there was pressure for her to go and not a lot of support from her government coalition partners for her to stay.

The Centre Party’s autumn conference takes place in Oulu at the beginning of September. A survey of the party’s district leaders by STT Finnish News Agency on Thursday afternoon found three out of 20 in favour of Kulmuni; and nine out of 20 said they would back Saarikko.