Many questions remain unanswered about the short-lived government crisis in June that saw the break-up of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s coalition with the Finns Party and its resulting reconstitution with a breakaway faction of MPs.
During the public discussion forum SuomiAreena organised by commercial broadcaster MTV, a member of the audience asked President Sauli Niinistö whether he had thought through his intervention in the leadership election of the nationalist Finns Party.
Niinistö initially jested that he had not played any role in the outcome of the election, nor did he later try to overturn the result when it emerged that ultra-nationalist Jussi Halla-aho had successfully claimed the chairmanship from other contenders, including current European Affairs Minister Sampo Terho.
Concerns over respect for human rights and EU role
However on a more serious note, Niinistö said that he had been asked how he thought Juha Sipilä’s Centre party-led government coalition would fare with the new Finns Party leadership.
"I only commented on the externals, that things could be difficult if there arose intense discussion on respect for human rights and EU matters. I did not initially know which direction the situation would then take and whether it could be resolved. Then the next day we saw that it wasn’t," Niinistö explained.
Niinistö’s comment referenced Sipilä’s decision on 12 June to kick the Halla-aho-led Finns Party out of government. Sipilä later said that ideological and practical differences with a party led by the anti-immigration hardliner were too great to overcome, hence the decision to terminate the cooperation.
Niinistö also shed light on the background manoeuvres that led to Sipilä’s decision on 13 June to call off a trip to ask Niinistö to dissolve the Parliament so that he could begin discussions aimed at forming a new government.
"I would not respond to this question if I had not seen that yesterday [Centre Party MP] Matti Vanhanen somehow said that I had the benefit of hindsight. That was not the case," Niinistö declared.
Niinistö implies differences over dissolution of Parliament
The President than laid out the sequence of events that took place during those critical hours before Sipilä cancelled his trip to the President’s summer residence, and later announced that he would partner with the Finns Party splinter group New Alternative, to reform the administration.
"On that crucial Tuesday [13 June], just after 1.00am when the Finns Party congress wrapped up, it occurred to me that 'Ahaa!' Those issues that have been kept under wraps are likely to come to pass."
"Earlier that morning when the Prime Minister was with me he said that he had spoken with constitutional scholars, then it occurred to me that I should too. So that when he came to Turku we ended up pondering whether it would be wise for us to appear together, because there were already media present. We wondered whether it would be wise because I had my own personal opinion that was a bit different," Niinistö explained, obliquely referring to the purpose of the aborted trip, which was to dissolve parliament.
"And it wasn’t really my business either. How the government negotiations would proceed and whether or not the government would seek to disband [parliament] does not fall under the president’s purview. But I was also asked or if you prefer when I was called upon to give some sort of blessing, I had to offer my own opinion and I clearly said to him and thereafter I assumed that he agreed that it wouldn’t be a good idea to appear together in front of the media," Niinistö hedged.