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Temporary Greens chair refuses to speculate on leadership bid as party bleeds support

Greens party chair Touko Aalto requested a leave of absence for health reasons in September, and polls suggest the party is quickly losing support.

Maria Ohisalo Savon Sanomien haastattelussa Kuopion Kino Kuvakukossa
Acting Greens chair Maria Ohisalo Image: Antti-Petteri Karhunen / Yle

When questioned about the future of her party and what she will do if Touko Aalto decides not to return to his post, acting Green Party chair Maria Ohisalo has a ready answer:

"This is a matter between Aalto and his physician, I have no comment."

This doesn't change the fact that many people are now speculating whether Aalto will indeed decide to return to the job, and if Ohisalo may in fact be a better choice for the position.

Historic rise under Niinistö

The Green Party in Finland has had some dramatic ups and downs in the last two years.

In the municipal elections in spring 2017, the Greens improved their results by four percentage points compared the previous elections, for 12.5 percent of the vote. This made them the fourth most popular political party in Finland.

The Green's then-party chair Ville Niinistö raked the centre-right government over the coals on its cuts to education, clearly touching a nerve with the electorate. His charismatic leadership also expanded the reach of his party beyond its urban, educated base to new supporters throughout the country.

The biggest local election surprise took place in central Finland, where Green candidate Touko Aalto won the largest share of the popular vote in Jyväskylä, helping to make the Greens the largest political party in the city. After term limits required that Ville Niinistö step down, it seemed only natural to many that Aalto was then voted the Greens party chair in June 2017.

By late August-early September of that same year, support for the Greens in opinion polls had grown to over 17 percent, an all-time high for a party that had been founded only 30 years earlier.

Rapid decline under Aalto

Things began to change as the autumn moved forward, however, as the only news items the party seemed to generate were stories about the new chair's private life: Touko Aalto's affairs and marriage troubles made headlines in many publications.

The topics in the political debate also moved away from education to other matters, including the perennial problem of reforming Finland's social and health care system and the government's latest controversial measures to activate the sluggish job market.

These were areas in which the Social Democrats were strong, and Antti Rinne's SDP soon started to gain back the public's support, to the detriment of the Greens. Many Green Party stalwarts were disappointed in the Greens' silence on multiple labour market issues.

By the start of 2018, support for the Greens in opinion polls had dropped back down to 14. The latest monthly tracking poll from the public broadcaster Yle showing results from late September- early October suggest less than 12 percent support.

Pollsters say the Greens are losing supporters to the SDP and Left Alliance, and a separate survey indicates that Aalto is now one of the least-liked party leaders in the country. Green MP Jani Toivola's recent improprieties regarding compensation on an unused second home and excessive taxi use have not helped the matter.

On 13 September, Touko Aalto announced that he would be taking a sick leave from his party chair duties due to fatigue. One month later, on 13 October, a Greens party secretary announced that Aalto would extend his sick leave until 16 November.

A bright future under Ohisalo?

Until his return, deputy chair Maria Ohisalo has been appointed acting chair in Aalto's stead. She has performed well in television appearances and interviews, and some voices are now saying she will be asked to continue in her leadership role if Aalto decides not to return. Others wager that Ville Niinistö may make a return, with his eyes on a prime minister post.

But who is Maria Ohisalo? Born in Helsinki in 1985, Ohisalo spent several years working for the Greens youth foundation before being named deputy chair of the Green Party in 2015. She has also had a seat on the Helsinki City Council since 2017.

Outside her political work, Ohisalo works as a researcher for the Y-Foundation, a group founded in 1985 to address the homeless problem in Finland by offering affordable rental housing. She wrote her PhD dissertation on food aid and poverty, defending it at the University of Eastern Finland in 2017.

A meeting of the party delegates will take place at around the same time that Aalto is expected to return to his position, and pundits are predicting that the Greens elite will then decide what kind of team will be put in place to lead the party towards the next parliamentary elections in April 2019.

Ohisalo admits that some kind of solution must be reached soon, as the party cannot make progress if it continues to limp forward under a substitute arrangement. She is hesitant to say anything more, as the assumption continues to be that Aalto will resume his work as chair.

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