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Saarikko challenges Kulmuni for Centre Party leadership

Two-time cabinet minister Annika Saarikko is already a strong favourite to replace Katri Kulmuni as Centre chair.

Annika Saarikko
At 36, Annika Saarikko has already been active in national politics for over a decade. Image: Antti Lähteenmäki / Yle

MP Annika Saarikko on Thursday threw her hat into the ring for the Centre Party leadership.

Saarikko, who returns as a cabinet minister next week after parental leave, made the announcement at a press conference at an old manor house in Helsinki.

The party is to select a leader at a conference in September.

Saarikko becomes the first to come forth as a candidate to challenge incumbent Katri Kulmuni, who took over last September.

Since Kulmuni took over, the popularity of the Centre – which was one of the 'big three' parties through much of Finnish history – has steadily declined.

"Looking at the opinion polls, at the moment we do not have the confidence of the Finnish people," Saarikko said on Thursday.

The most recent Yle poll showed the Centre in fourth place with 11.4 percent support, compared to 21.9 percent for government partners the SDP.

'Respect and sympathy' for Kulmuni

Saarikko declined to say what her main policy differences are compared to Kulmuni, saying she would leave such comparisons up to the media.

She said while she deeply respects Kulmuni and feels sympathy for what she has experienced, Saarikko believes that the Centre Party deserves a leadership choice.

In December, Kulmuni shifted from the post of economic affairs minister to become finance minister and deputy prime minister. Early last month she resigned from the cabinet amid a controversy over consultancy fees.

However she stayed on as party chair and said she wanted to carry on in the position after this September's party congress – which would be unusual, as the leaders of government parties have almost always been cabinet ministers.

Advance favourite

Various polls have shown Saarikko as the favourite as the new party leader even before she announced her candidacy.

In an Yle straw poll of Centre Party decision-makers earlier this month, Saarikko led Kulmuni by a margin of 47 to 38 percent.

Polls carried out by MTV News and Iltalehti produced similar results.

There were already calls for Saarikko to run last September to replace former PM Juha Sipilä as Centre chair, but she declined as she had just given birth to her second child.

Instead Saarikko backed Kulmuni's opponent, Antti Kaikkonen, who is now defence minister. He says he does not intend to run again. Nor does former PM and party chair Matti Vanhanen, who replaced Kulmuni as finance minister.

Minister of Economic Affairs Mika Lintilä, who was bumped down from the finance minister's post by Kulmuni, is also considering a bid for the party leadership, according to the SDP newspaper Demokraatti.

Saarikko declined to say which ministerial portfolio she would seek if elected as party leader, but said that Vanhanen could remain finance minister for as long as he wanted.

Political veteran at 36

Next week Saarikko takes over from Hanna Kosonen as Minister of Science and Culture.

Saarikko served as Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services for the second half of Sipilä's government term, overseeing the unsuccessful bid to reform the social and healthcare system known as sote.

At 36, Saarikko has already been active in national politics for over a decade.

A third-term member of Parliament from southwestern Finland, Saarikko began her political career at 25 as an assistant to longtime government minister Paavo Väyrynen, and then to Mari Kiviniemi, who served briefly as prime minister.

Saarikko was elected as deputy party chair at 26, holding the post for six years.

She and her husband, a finance ministry official, have two preschool-aged sons. Besides a home in the Helsinki area, they live at her parents' former farmhouse in Oripää, midway between Turku and Tampere.

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