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Parliamentary group chief Sampo Terho to vie for Finns Party chair

Finns Party parliamentary group chair Sampo Terho has announced a bid to take over the helm of the populist Finns Party from larger-than-life incumbent Timo Soini. He will face off against relative political rookie, MP Leena Meri – and possibly against outspoken immigration critic, Jussi Halla-aho.

Sampo Terho Image: Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva

The competition to anoint a new chairman of the nationalist Finns Party has taken an interesting turn, with the revelation that incumbent Timo Soini is stepping down. On Monday, Finns Party parliamentary group leader Sampo Terho said that he would join the race to replace Soini.

Terho is not only vying to become the new party leader, he said that he would also become the party's candidate for presidential elections in 2018, if he is elected chairman.

In his opening salvo for the campaign to lead the Eurosceptic party, Terho said that he intends to find out the true benefits and drawbacks of EU membership.

"I think it is a central tenet of immigration policy for Finland to remove all the factors that attract asylum seekers to Finland," he declared at a press conference on Monday.

Line-up for leadership contest takes shape

Another favourite to inherit the top spot in the party was Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö, however he has already declined entering the contest, and has pledged support for Terho.

Parliamentary speaker Maria Lohela and Labour and Justice Minister Jari Lindström also rejected the idea of challenging other comers for the party chair. While Lohela pledged support for Terho, Lindström did not identify a favourite.

Meanwhile on Sunday rookie Finns Party MP Leena Meri announced that she would also run for party chair and Finns Party MEP Jussi Halla-aho is yet to formally throw his hat into the ring.

Even before Soini bowed out of defending the chairmanship, Halla-aho had been rumoured to be a strong contender to contest the party leadership. Pundits believed that Halla-aho's hard line on immigration and EU issues would help lure back followers who had drifted away from the party over its support for unpopular government measures.

Halla-aho, who was convicted for ethnic incitement in 2012, is widely expected to declare his position on the leadership election this week.

Tough times for Finns Party

Soini's departure from the leadership position comes at a crucial time for the party. After hitting a high of public support and gaining 19.1 percent of the popular vote during Parliamentary elections in 2011, the Finns Party took on the mantle of government as part of Juha Sipilä's three-party coalition in 2015.

However the responsibility of government has meant some unappetising compromises for party faithful on issues such as austerity at home, financial bailouts for Greece, immigration and EU policy.

As Finland heads into local government elections in April, political gurus are viewing the vote as a mid-term referendum on the coalition government. While polling for the two main government partners, the Centre and National Coalition parties look reasonably strong at 19 and 18.4 percent respectively, the Finns Party has haemorrhaged support, with just under nine percent of voters saying they back the party.

Pundits have also suggested that a shake-up at the top of the coalition partner could send shock waves through the administration – if Halla-aho is elected to replace Soini, will he be able to align with the pro-Europe stance of the other coalition partners, or will the government founder?

Terho: "Moderate" immigration sceptic

Both Halla-aho and Terho oppose immigration into Finland. However Terho is positioning himself on the moderate end of the spectrum.

Terho said that he hopes to have a weighty government portfolio if he is elected as party chair, but he did not mention the post of Foreign Minister, which Soini said he hopes to occupy until the end of the current government's term in office.

Asked about what distinguishes him from Halla-aho, Terho responded, "Halla-aho has a doctorate, I have a master’s degree. He lives in Eira, I live in Töölö. At the end of the day, we are quite similar. Well, perhaps I'm more familiar with economy matters," Terho offered.

Finns Party delegates will gather in Jyväskylä in early June.