Centre Party chair Katri Kulmuni stepped down as finance minister and deputy prime minister on Friday afternoon, startling even seasoned political analysts.
Her announcement came after the newsweekly Suomen Kuvalehti revealed on Tuesday that she had billed taxpayers for costly media performance training by a Centre-linked consultancy firm that was hired without open bidding.
Some of the training was carried out during the time Kulmuni was campaigning for the party leadership, and some at a time when the government had caretaker status following the resignation of former prime minister Antti Rinne last December – a resignation that Kulmuni had in effect forced by declaring a general lack of confidence in him.
The training, billed at an eye-watering cost of some 1500 euros an hour, was carried out by a firm owned by Harri Saukkomaa, a former Suomen Kuvalehti and Yle editor with long-running ties to the Centre Party since his days as an activist in its youth group. He had also frequently served as a consultant to Rinne’s predecessor as PM, Juha Sipilä – but then always at the party’s expense. The total cost included Saukkomaa's personal fee of 700 euros an hour.
Kulmuni replaced Sipilä as party chair in September, after the party suffered its worst drubbing ever in last spring’s parliamentary election.
“Her resignation was surprising in that it was done for quite a flimsy reason,” says Johanna Vuorelma, a postdoctoral researcher at Tampere University’s Institute for Advanced Social Research.
No support from party colleagues
Professor of Political Science Kimmo Grönlund from Åbo Akademi university in Turku agrees that there was certainly more behind the resignation than just the 50,000-euro consultancy fees, which Kulmuni offered to repay herself.
They point to an Yle opinion poll published on Thursday showing Centre Party support falling to 10.7 percent, its second-lowest rating ever. That was a drop of one and a half percentage points since the previous month – without any impact yet from the latest furore.
“Kulmuni was elected to raise the party’s support, but that has not happened. There must be support be pressure within the party against the chair,” says Grönlund.
He and Vuorelma both point out that there were no expressions of support for Kulmuni from within the party since the Suomen Kuvalehti report, although they would usually be expected.
“She certainly wouldn’t have quit if she had gotten support from her party and government partners,” Grönlund says.
Vuorelma notes that nowadays political scandals escalate more quickly and the threshold for resigning is lower. She also says that in light of history, confidence in female politicians seems to collapse more quickly than for their male colleagues.
Naming of replacement postponed
The Centre Party was to have chosen a new finance minister on Sunday, but said on Saturday afternoon that the decision would be put off. No reason or new date was given.
Kulmuni said on Friday that she planned to stay on as party chair, and added on Saturday that she intends to run for re-election in September.
The next leadership election is set for the party congress in September. The pundits interviewed by Yle suggest Annika Saarikko and Antti Kaikkonen as likely names to throw their hats into the ring to challenge or succeed Kulmuni.
Saarikko, a former minister of family affairs and social services, served as minister of science and culture until last August. She then began maternity leave, which is due to end in August.
Kaikkonen, who lost the leadership battle to Kulmuni last autumn, has his own historical baggage, having been convicted of corruption linked to the Centre-affiliated Finnish Youth Foundation. That was part of a broader campaign financing scandal. Kaikkonen is now Minister of Defence.
Another possible name from within the cabinet to take over as finance minister - as Finland enters a recession - might be veteran Centre politician Mika Lintilä.
He held the post last year from June to December, when he was obliged to switch jobs with then-economic affairs minister Kulmuni when she decided to take over the heftier finance portfolio. The finance minister is traditionally also deputy prime minister.
Lintilä is one of the only holdovers from the Sipilä cabinet, where he was also economic affairs minister beginning in 2016.
On Saturday he told the Finnish news agency STT that he would not turn down a return to the finance minister's post if offered.
"The finance ministry's post is one that you don't decline," he said.
There is some urgency to inaugurate a new finance minister, as next week the government is to present its supplementary budget plan to Parliament, followed by an EU finance ministers' meeting on Thursday.
"If Centre support remains at this level, government cooperation cannot last"
Grönlund sees it as highly unlikely that Kulmuni could continue as party chair without being in government.
The Centre’s position in the five-party coalition government has been shaky for some time, the commentators say.
While polls indicate that most Finns approve of the cabinet’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and support for Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s SDP has soared, the Centre’s has continued to fall.
Grönlund says that the Centre is having a hard time getting its economic agenda across in the left/Green-dominated cabinet.
"If the Centre’s support remains at this level, its government cooperation cannot last," he says.
Emails reveal insistence on hiring Centre-linked consultant
More light was shed on the consultancy scandal late Friday, when the tabloid Iltalehti published emails from within the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment.
They show that Kulmuni’s Special Advisor, Kari Jääskeläinen, insisted last August that the training contract be given to Saukkomaa’s firm, Tekir, rather than one of the two other communications firms held on government retainer for such work.
At that point, Kulmuni was minister of economic affairs and campaigning for the party leadership. Longtime Centre Party operative Jääskeläinen also worked with Tekir when he was Sipilä's special advisor.
After some internal wrangling, Tekir was hired for an initial round of three training sessions for Kulmuni lasting three hours each – at a cost of 13,600 euros. That fell below the 20,000-euro level at which state contracts must be put out for public bidding.
However according to Suomen Kuvalehti, Tekir billed for 56,203 euros including VAT, over the following six months. Some of the invoices were paid by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment and the rest by the Finance Ministry.
15.29: Updated with delay in choice of Kulmuni's successor as finance minister.
17:03 Added that Kulmuni intends to run for re-election as party chair.
19:41 Added Lintilä comment.