By Lennart Simonsson - LESS than a year before Finland is due to hold national polls, the country is set to get a new prime minister. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen is to step down as Centre Party leader at a party conference starting today in Lahti, just north of Helsinki.
Some 2,500 Centre Party delegates were to elect his a successor and the new party leader is expected to take over from him as premier — pending approval from parliament and president.
Vanhanen, 54, who has been prime minister since 2003, plans to attend a European Union summit in Brussels on June 17 before tendering his resignation to President Tarja Halonen the following day. Odds are that the new premier will be in office by end of June.
The four-party coalition formed in 2007 includes the conservative National Coalition Party, the Green League and the Swedish People’s Party.
Vanhanen in December announced his decision not to seek a new term as party leader, citing a pending operation on a leg. Health reasons might be one factor for his decision, but the premier and several other leading party members have also been impacted by a party campaign funding scandal, and the premier’s approval ratings have taken a hit.
The tall, soft-spoken Vanhanen was propelled from a short stint as defence minister to replace Anneli Jaatteenmaki in June 2003. She resigned as the country’s first female prime minister following a row over the alleged misuse of classified information, and she later become a member of the European Parliament.
Vanhanen could be succeeded by a woman. Mari Kiviniemi — the only woman in the race — is favourite among the four candidates vying for the position as party leader.
The 41-year-old married mother of two is currently minister of public administration and local government. She became a member of parliament in 1995 and has held other cabinet posts including as minister for foreign trade and development.
Two party veterans — Foreign Trade and Development Minister Paavo Vayrynen and Economic Affairs Minister Mauri Pekkarinen — are also in the running. Of the two, Pekkarinen has the edge over Vayrynen who is 63 and had led the party from 1980 to 1990.