COLUMN: The return of the strongman
"It might be worth learning how to pronounce 'Prime Minister Väyrynen'"
By Juha Akkanen
The race to replace Matti Vanhanen as the chairman of the Centre Party has hitherto been marked more by no-shows than by people lining up at the start.
It almost gave pause to think what it is with these Centrists that they do not seem to want power, even if it is offered them on a silver platter.
The biggest shock to the party faithful came at the weekend when the advance favourite - Minister of the Environment Paula Lehtomäki - announced she would not be joining the dance.
Lehtomäki justified her decision not to run on family grounds. She has two young sons.
The decision showed that Lehtomäki "has her values in the right place", as the powerful Centre Party figure Seppo Kääriäinen put it.
Lehtomäki is only 37, and can console herself if need be with the thought that she still has 25 years of her career ahead of her.
But on the other hand, a better opportunity to become head of the party - and possibly Prime Minister into the bargain - is not likely to come around again.
Fortunately, there is Paavo Väyrynen. He never lets you down. And he never seems to tire of the fight.
Väyrynen, who led the Centre Party throughout the 1980s and was thereafter anointed as honorary chairman, could find no sensible reason why he should shirk the challenge of a comeback: his health is good, and his family provides no obstacle to the campaign.
Väyrynen regards as one of his trump cards the fact that he would be capable of handling the PM's tasks even in these difficult times. And there is absolutely no doubt that he could.
In a typically Väyrynen-like and tortuous chain of thought, Paavo reached the conclusion that his selection as the new chairman would also revamp the image of the Centre Party, paving the way for victory at the next general election (in March 2011) and allowing the Centre Party to be the largest in the country and the de facto "party of the prime minister".
The 63-year-old veteran puts his hopes in the fact that by his own calculations he has been out of the Finnish political limelight for fifteen years, much of the time as a MEP in Brussels.
During that time around 800,000 "new voters" have come of age, for whom the name and deeds of Väyrynen are a blank page.
Väyrynen also gave an assurance that he himself had changed in those fifteen years. This remains to be seen.
Väyrynen has deliberately kicked off his campaign early, in order that the Centre Party folk can digest the idea that... well, maybe, yes, perhaps Väyrynen could do the trick after all.
He recognises that taking this on board could involve even the Centre Party faithful in some time and careful thought.
But there is time - the party conference is not until June.
If Väyrynen is chosen, the policies of the Centre Party will undoubtedly change. He said he has been missing a stronger sense of the ideological roots of the party ever since he gave up the chairmanship on the previous occasion, in 1990.
Now at least there is no danger that the competition to find a successor to Matti Vanhanen will be a non-event.
With Väyrynen's presence in the arena, the rapt attention of the media and the public is guaranteed.
The news of Paavo Väyrynen's desire for a comeback may nevertheless scare off a good many other potential candidates.
What, for instance, will Minister for Economic Affairs Mauri Pekkarinen decide to do now?
One hopes that Pekkarinen, too, will throw his hat into the ring. And the same goes for another former Centre Party chairman, MEP and former Prime Minister Anneli Jäätteenmäki, who headed the party between 2000 and 2003.
The Centre Party conference delegates are an unpredictable bunch, but with the current candidate-setting, it seems clear that middle-aged male Centre Party MPs are going to be the wallflowers on this occasion.
Who can remember any male middle-aged candidates who might have been contenders?
On the other hand, there are the women. Jäätteenmäki has been mentioned, and at the end of this week the expectation is that Mari Kiviniemi, 41, the Minister of Public Administration and Local Government, will declare that she is making a run for the job.
Kiviniemi's odds shortened appreciably with the non-appearance of her main rival Paula Lehtomäki on the starting line, but even for her Paavo Väyrynen is going to be a tough nut to crack.
Who else in the fray has the sort of experience, expertise, and above all sheer will-to-win that he can call upon?
If someone else does get picked for the chairmanship after the campaign dust settles, he or she will certainly have been given a very useful and robust dress rehearsal for the general election debates that come in early 2011.
The other political parties will almost certainly be hoping that Väyrynen does get chosen as the new Centre Party leader.
He is a contentious figure by any standards, and not someone about whom the public can be indifferent.
But if he does make it, the other parties will definitely also learn quickly what it is when politics is written and practiced with a capital P.
Things will get even heavier on this front if Jarmo Korhonen stays in his post as Centre Party Secretary after June.
Then the Centrists will return to something like the golden years of the 1980s, when the dynamic duo was formed of Väyrynen and his party secretary Seppo Kääriäinen.
Kääriäinen was in the secretary's seat throughout Väyrynen's ten years as party leader.
These days Kääriäinen's support for Väyrynen may not be quite as unstinting as it once was.
He did noticeably point out recently in a party paper that it was not wise to choose between self-centred Idols types and party strongmen in picking a chairman, and that in their stead what the party needed was someone with the skills of a football coach or a choral conductor.
Be that as it may, what we have now is the return of the strongman.
Still, if after the 2011 elections Väyrynen is chosen as the next PM, would that be enough for him? Väyrynen is known for his ambitions towards power.
He has declared he is too old to stand for the Presidency again [he tried unsuccessfully in 1988 and 1994], but let's face it, if at the age of 63 he is not too old to become the leader of the Centre Party and not too old at 64 to head a government coalition, why would he be past it in 2012 when the chance comes up for a shot at the President's job?
It might be as well for us to learn how to say "Prime Minister Paavo Väyrynen", and then to get our mouths around "President Paavo Väyrynen".
Just in case, you understand.
And if the words just don't seem to take shape, however hard you try to work your jaw, then it might be worth booking a one-way cabin passage on the ferries to Sweden in good time.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 20.01.2010
More on this subject:
Paavo Väyrynen seeks return to Centre Party leadership
JUHA AKKANEN / Helsingin Sanomat