COMMENTARY: Christmas break gives Centre Party figures time to consider Party leadership issue
By Jaakko Hautamäki
On Friday Parliament will begin its Christmas holiday of a month and a half. Many politicians will have the opportunity to consider their future - particularly those who are considering challenging Matti Vanhanen in the race for Chairman of the Centre Party next summer.
Many have said that they will decide on whether or not to challenge Vanhanen in the spring. Minister of the Environment Paula Lehtomäki, who has been mentioned as the primary challenger, has said that she will disclose her intentions early in the year - that is, very soon.
What will Lehtomäki be considering during her holiday? She has said that her decision-making will not be affected in any way by Vanhanen’s own schedule with is announcement.
The number one challenger also recalls that Vanhanen has made it clear on a number of occasions that the party leadership and the post of Prime Minister are part of the same package. This means that if you are elected to lead the party, you will also be the Prime Minister.
This linkage is Vanhanen’s trump card in the leadership game. He is forcing his people to ask themselves if they are willing to trust the new Chairman also as the Prime Minister.
The party people might ask about risks. Could the National Coalition Party possibly take advantage of the situation and demand significant changes in the composition of the government if a new Chairman is elected for the Centre Party. The game could even turn out to be so difficult that new elections might be discussed. After next summer Finland could be so deep in the mire of spending cuts, tax hikes and structural change that the voters will be asking each other about the economic risks linked with a change in the party Chair and Prime Minister.
Messages are coming from Lehtomäki’s home region suggesting that she has started to have doubts. The messages have also reached the ears of leading Centre Party figures such as Seppo Kääriäinen, and they have not been silent about these messages - not even those who are known to be supporters of Lehtomäki.
During her Christmas break, Lehtomäki, who lives in Sipoo, to the east of Helsinki, will be taking care of her children, and thinking about what messages she should send to her new electoral district - Uusimaa. One possibility would be to postpone entering the fray until April.
But how is one supposed to avoid Vanhanen’s linkage between the posts of Prime Minister and party Chair?
Could a candidate for the leadership, who is part of the ministerial group, enter the race on the condition that Vanhanen would continue as Prime Minister, while the new party leader would withdraw from the ministerial group?
In this way the party Chair could concentrate on the upcoming elections while the Prime Minister focuses on leading the country. This solution has also been considered, even by the Centre Party’s parliamentary group.
The chances of every challenger are weakened by Vanhanen’s new-found stature. He became a party leader again at least for a moment in front of his party’s delegate council, after rejecting the role of Prime Minister and CEO. After that, he has also bravely clashed with the President.
In any case, right before the holidays it seems that Lehtomäki is the only candidate who has a real chance of toppling Vanhanen. Many others might challenge Vanhanen, but the real goal, realistically, would the post of Deputy Chair.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 13.12.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
Centre Party and Social Democrats making frantic attempts to recruit new members (10.11.2009)
Centre Party leader Matti Vanhanen feels “strengthened by election funding furore” (19.10.2009)
The Centre Party of Finland
JAAKKO HAUTAMÄKI / Helsingin Sanomat