Finland’s former prime minister Matti Vanhanen has sought to defend his leadership performance on Sunday following searing criticism by President Sauli Niinistö published in a newspaper interview earlier this weekend.
Speaking to Yle, Vanhanen denied that his time in office was characterised by failure and economic mismanagement, and said he could not understand Niinistö’s claim that Finland’s recent governments have been more concerned with image than substance.
On Saturday, Niinistö made a rare foray into domestic politics – an area traditionally outside the mandate of Finland’s president – to offer a series of damning criticisms of Finland’s leaders since 2007.
In an interview published in a number of regional newspapers including Keskisuomalainen and Savon Sanomat, Niinistö complained of the rise of “illusion politics”. He claimed that governments since 2007 had created the illusion that action had been taken to implement difficult economic decisions when in fact, nothing had been done.
The Centre Party’s Matti Vanhanen took up leadership of the government in 2007, stepping down three years later amid a swirl of scandal and citing medical problems. The Centre Party subsequently lost the 2011 election.
On Sunday Vanhanen, who may stand as a parliamentary candidate at the next general election, hit back at the President. ”I really don’t understand this illusion idea, because between 2007 and 2010, when the 2009 depression hit, everything was very much true and real,” Vanhanen said.
Vanhanen admitted making some bad decisions during his years in office, but denied his leadership was “a period of failure”.
”When the economy plunged by eight percent in 2009, the key aim was to avoid the same wave of bankruptcies and mass unemployment that we saw during the 1990s depression. In some ways we succeeded, and it may be that in others we failed. Niinistö and others should focus on evaluating those failures,” he said.
Vanhanen also returned fire, criticising Niinistö’s own policies during his time as finance minister from 1996 to 2003, when he led Finland to join the eurozone.
”The current problem is that when there’s no flexibility in the currency markets, there are few quick fixes to how to boost export competitiveness. This problem stems from being in the euro, and it might be good to evaluate what was done and not done at the end of the 1990s and start of the 2000s when we joined the euro. Hopefully Niinistö will analyse that too,” he said.
Vanhanen also rejected Niinistö’s criticism that huge expenditure was being supported by debt, in the name of kick-starting an economic recovery.
”During my time in office economic recovery was being driven by taxation. All spending increases which were done in the name of the recovery were funded responsibly, by savings made in other expenditure areas. So I don’t accept his criticism in this regard,” Vanhanen said.
Vanhanen said he will decide this autumn whether to run as a parliamentary candidate in next year’s general election.
In his interview, Niinistö’s criticism also extended to the government led by his National Coalition Party colleagues Jyrki Katainen and, subsequently, Alexander Stubb.
Many key reforms undertaken by Katainen’s government had ended in failure, Niinistö claimed. He added that responsibility for pushing through the long-promised healthcare reforms is likely to fall on the next government.
Niinistö also criticised the Finnish media for failing to critically assess the government’s performance and adequately scrutinise the progress of its major projects.
Niinistö served as Finance Minister from 1996 to 2003. He was known for his strict fiscal policies and has been credited with playing a central role in hauling Finland out of a punishing economic recession in the 1990s. He also led the country into the single-currency eurozone in 2002.
This article has been edited to reflect Vanhanen's uncertainty over whether he will stand in the next parliamentary election.