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Greens mull leadership change at height of popularity

Greens party leader Ville Niinistö is due to step down as chair in summer 2017, after serving a maximum of six years in the position. The party now faces the task of identifying a successor at a time when it is enjoying unprecedented popularity in voter opinion polls.

Ville Niinistö.
Greens party chair Ville Niinistö. Image: Jarno Kuusinen / AOP

During Ville Niinistö’s fifth year at the helm of the Greens, the party has seen its voter approval rating rise from under 10 percent after the 2015 general election to 13.5 percent – its highest rating ever. The Greens are most popular in Helsinki, where it commands more 10 percent of voter support.

The Greens have sped past government coalition partner the Finns Party to become the fourth-largest party in terms of voter intentions. Yle’s monthly political barometer has seen the Greens maintain that position for more than half a year. Its latest poll shows the Greens - and most other opposition parties - consolidating support as the government partners lose voter backing.

It’s against this backdrop that the party is now pondering its alternatives as it looks to a leadership change in 2017. By next summer incumbent Ville Niinistö will have to make way for a successor after having served the party’s maximum of six years as leader.

"If the Greens elect a new chairman during this upswing - it’s an interesting moment to choose a new leader to lead the party toward a general election and potentially significant government responsibility," Niinistö commented.

The timing isn’t only interesting, it’s also risky from the perspective of party support. Niinistö’s next major assignment as head of the party is local government elections due next spring. The party is hoping that the election will serve as a springboard for the next chairperson.

"The goal in the municipal elections is for the Greens to become Helsinki’s largest party and to secure such a strong result nationally, that it will serve as a foundation for the next chair," Niinistö said.

New chair to come from parliamentary group

Emma Kari.
Emma Kari. Image: AOP
Party pundits have said that Niinistö’s successor is likely to come from the parliamentary group, and could even be a first-term MP..

One of potential candidate is MP Emma Kari, who told Yle that she has in fact received encouragement to vie for the position. However she said she has not yet decided on whether or not to run.

"Of course everyone gives it some consideration, but now is not the time for it," Kari declared.

On the other hand, Greens vice-chair, MP Touko Aalto said he has given the matter some thought.

"I am seriously considering it," Aalto told Yle. "What’s most important is that among the four major parties, the Greens can offer a humane alternative in politics," he added.

Touko Aalto.
Touko Aalto is a fisrt-term Greens MP. Image: Yle

Second vice chair Hanna Halmeenpää is another potential contender, however she said that she was unlikely to enter the race.

The Greens are also due to usher in a new parliamentary group leader during next year’s party congress. That means voting in a successor for current group chair Outi Alanko-Kaihiluoto.

Alanko-Kaihiluoto said she isn’t yet considering a run for the party chairmanship, but she did say that it would be good to see a woman take over after Niinistö’s six years on the job.

Outi Alanko-Kahiluoto
Outi Alanko-Kahiluoto Image: Jarno Kuusinen / AOP

In 2011 Alanko-Kaihiluoto competed for the position, but Niinistö emerged the winner. She said she would make a decision about throwing her hat into the ring closer to autumn.

Option to extend Niinistö's term?

The party will also elect new faces in other top positions, such as in parliamentary committees, but it is hardly likely that Ville Niinistö will completely disappear from the spotlight, even after he hands over the lead role.

The Greens once extended the maximum term of the party leader by two years. Deputy parliamentary group chair Olli-Poika Parviainen said the party might do well to consider adopting this measure again.

He said that the downside of a rapid transition to a new leader was the length of time it would take a new chair to settle down in the position.

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