Top members of the Centre Party meet in Helsinki this weekend with a mission: to talk their regional chairs into spending the next two weeks encouraging party members to vote for the party's official presidential candidate, Matti Vanhanen, and not Paavo Värynen or Sauli Niinistö.
The latest Yle poll from late December-early January indicated that Vanhanen is attracting just two percent of the total vote. This is hardly a good result from the party that won the largest share of the vote in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Honorary Centre Party chair Paavo Väyrynen, who left the party in 2016 to form his own party, is currently polling at four percent, or twice that of the party's official choice.
69% of party members plan to vote for Niinistö
The situation is unusual, as the poll suggested that just 17 percent of the survey respondents that identified as Centre Party supporters planned to vote for Vanhanen, while 69 percent were planning to cast their ballot for President Sauli Niinistö in order to see him serve a second term.
At nine percent, Väyrynen's support percentage among the party loyal is smaller than Vanhanen's, but still enough to chip away at securing a decent result.
The Centre Party elite that met in Helsinki on Saturday took turns convincing each other that Vanhanen's performance in Yle's televised election panel on Thursday had turned things around.
"There's been a turning point. The incumbent said this week that a second round of voting won't be necessary, but we're here to make sure that it will be," said the Centre Party secretary Jouni Ovaska.
Ovaska referred to an article in the newspaper Savon Sanomat that quoted President Niinistö confidently stating that the race would be decided already in the first round. He later commented that he made the remark as a joke.
Vanhanen highlights key differences
In his speech to his colleagues on Saturday, former prime minister Matti Vanhanen criticised the man who was stealing his votes and emphasized his Centre Party values.
"President Niinistö has been speculating lately on closer cooperation between EU and NATO potentially leading to a need to consider NATO membership for Finland. I don't understand this logic, as both the EU and NATO seek to keep their individual mandates clear. Each has its own role, and actively seeks to avoid competing activities. It is not in Finland's best interests to go mixing up the two," Vanhanen said.
He was also careful to point out contradictions in Niinistö's stance on regional politics in Finland, one of the agrarian-based party's most important issues.
"We differ in our approach to maintaining the entire country's well-being. This is apparent when you read our responses to the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat's election compass questions. Niinistö was the only candidate to stand in support of the idea that the country's major cities play a more important role. Although yesterday in Tampere he also said he would like to keep the whole country populated," Vanhanen said.
18% in 2006, 2% in 2018?
The last time Vanhanen ran for president in Finland was in 2006. At that time, he received 18.6 percent of the vote in the first round, putting him in third place overall.
If the Centre Party's choice in the presidential elections gains fewer votes than Värynen, it would mean a major loss of face for the party elite that insisted he was their man.
Time is running out for the party to convince people, however, as preliminary voting in the 2018 presidential elections begins already next week - on Wednesday, January 17.