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If re-elected as Centre chair, Kulmuni won't seek return to cabinet before 2021

Potential challenger Annika Saarikko is to announce whether she'll seek the leadership within the next few weeks.

Kuvassa ovat Annika Saarikko ja Katri Kulmuni Loimaalla heinäkuun 2020 alussa.
Annika Saarikko (left) and Katri Kulmuni at an event in Loimaa, Southwest Finland, last Wednesday. Image: Lassi Lähteenmäki / Yle

This month Centre Party chair Katri Kulmuni is travelling around Finland, meeting with party faithful at market square events.

Less than two months from now, Kulmuni faces a vote on a second term as party chair, just a year after being first elected to the post. Last September she was chosen as party leader following former premier Juha Sipilä's resignation in the wake of a disastrous parliamentary election defeat.

During Kulmuni's 10 months on the job, the party's popularity has continued to sink steadily in Yle's monthly opinion polls. That sagging support was likely a factor in her sudden resignation as finance minister in early June – along with an uproar over murky consultancy fees, which she has since repaid to the state.

Last autumn, she won the leadership contest over Antti Kaikkonen, whose backers included deputy chair Annika Saarikko.

When the party joined Social Democratic PM Sanna Marin's five-party coalition government in December, Kaikkonen became defence minister and Kulmuni finance minister. Saarikko, who had been minister of science and culture in the previous SDP-led cabinet, began a year's maternity leave last August, and intends to join the new government next month.

Saarikko may throw hat into ring soon

Saarikko is also expected to announce in late July or early August whether she will challenge Kulmuni as chair at the next party congress.

It is scheduled for 4-6 September in Oulu, having been postponed from June due to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to an Yle straw poll of Centre Party delegates, Saarikko, 36, would be a narrow favourite if she runs against Kulmuni, who is 32. Saarikko, served as Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services in the Sipilä government. In the poll, Saarikko garnered 47 percent compared to 38 percent for Kulmuni.

So far no-one has officially launched a challenge to Kulmuni, although most party delegates said they hope that there will be an election. Kaikkonen has ruled out another bid, as has Kulmuni's successor as finance minister, Matti Vanhanen.

Just one year as leader "unusual"

Yle Senior Political Correspondent Ari Hakahuhta notes that it would be unusual for a party to change leaders after just a year – and also for a leader of a government party not to hold a cabinet post.

So if she is re-elected as chair, would Kulmuni re-join Marin's cabinet? Not for at least eight months, she says, pointing to the next key test of party support, municipal elections in April 2021.

"As party leader, I will not seek to join the Council of State before the municipal elections. As to life after the municipal elections, I have not thought that far," she told Yle.

"It does look close," Kulmuni says, regarding a possible match-up against Saarikko.

"I certainly do have support," she continues. "And the Centre must gain support before next spring's local elections and also in future elections, so that the Centre can work on behalf of our fatherland."

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