The Centre Party's 135-member council met via videoconference on Saturday while the council of the opposition Finns Party gathered at a Helsinki hotel. Both parties were coming off dramatic weeks in politics.
Addressing Centre leaders, party chair Katri Kulmuni insisted that the party remains strongly committed to the work of the five-party coalition government led by left-leaning Prime Minister Sanna Marin.
Kulmuni stressed the importance of cooperation between the prime minister and finance minister, the second-heaviest portfolio in the cabinet. She said that the choice of Vanhanen, with his experience as one of Finland's longest-serving premiers, was evidence of the party's seriousness.
Vanhanen served as prime minister from 2003 to 2010, running for president in 2006 and 2018 and becoming Speaker of Parliament last year.
In his speech to council members, Vanhanen focused more on finances than politics. He pointed out that stimulus measures to deal with the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic cannot become permanent.
"After this stimulus phase we'll also need adjustment measures, which still lie ahead during this legislative term. We hope everyone can now be patient," Vanhanen said.
Centre must win back public trust
Kulmuni said that in order to raise the party's slumping popularity, it must win back public trust. She said that the Centre must once again "dive into people's hearts".
While backing for most of the five parties in the coalition government has risen this past spring, that of the Centre has continued to drop. According to the latest Yle opinion poll, published last week, just 10.7 percent of respondents said they support the party, its second-worst showing ever.
More than 2,400 people were questioned for the poll between 11 May and 2 June – before news emerged of Kulmuni's questionable invoicing of consultancy fees at taxpayer expense.
Kulmuni reiterated that she plans to seek another term at the helm of the party in September, even though she is no longer a cabinet minister. She did not say whether she would seek to return to government if she is re-elected as party leader.
Saarikko seen as strongest challenger
In a fresh Yle poll of Centre MPs and members of the party's board and council, 60 percent of respondents said they hope that Kulmuni faces a challenger at the party congress in September. That was up from 24 percent in a corresponding survey in February.
Most said the best challenger would be MP Annika Saarikko, who has served as minister of family affairs and social services and minister of science and culture, a post she is to resume in August after maternity leave.
Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen, who lost to Kulmuni in the leadership race last autumn, has said he will not seek the post again, citing the impending birth of a child.