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Cablegate: Pm Stepping Down As Party Leader Next June

VZCZCXYZ0004
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHHE #0488 3571317
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 231317Z DEC 09
FM AMEMBASSY HELSINKI
TO SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 5335

UNCLAS HELSINKI 000488

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: FI PGOV
SUBJECT: PM STEPPING DOWN AS PARTY LEADER NEXT JUNE

1. (SBU) In a surprise announcement made via Centre Party
parliamentary leader Timo Kalli and his own blog on December
23, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen indicated that he would not
stand for reelection as leader of the Centre Party at its
June 2010 party conference. Citing health reasons (surgery
required on his legs next fall), he felt that he would not
have sufficient time to recover from an operation, serve as
prime minister, and lead his party into April 2011 elections
all at the same time. He went on say that the next party
leader would "have a leading rol in PM selection", opening
the possibility that he might also relinquish leadership of
the government in June 2010.

2. (SBU) Vanhanen's health problem was not widely known prior
to this announcement. There may be speculation that the real
reason for Vanhanen's departure is political. He was chosen
as Finland's least trustworthy politician by a wide margin in
a Taloustutkimus poll earlier this month (receiving 21%
"support" compared to the second place SPD Leader Urpilainen
who received 4%). He appeared to retain broad support within
his party in the aftermath of the long-running campaign
funding scandal (in which most parties have been implicated,
though Centre more than any other) and corruption allegations
against the PM personally. The latter aired on a YLE TV
investigative program in September 2009, but collapsed after
being forcefully rebutted by the PM, resulting in most of the
party rallying around their leader after some disquiet in the
ranks. Chatter in the media about replacing Vanhanen at next
summer's Centre Party conference had died down to nothing
over the last two months. Support for the three biggest
parties (NCP, SDP, and Centre) has remained steady from
August through November. The NCP remains most popular with
23.1 percent, followed by the SDP at 20.3 percent and Centre
at 20.1 percent with a 1.4 percent margin of error. Centre's
public support actually went up two points between April and
October 2009 despite damaging revelations about its campaign
funding appearing in the media in the intervening months.

3. (SBU) Five Centre Party figures have been mooted in the
media as possible successors to Vanhanen as party leader and
possibly PM. Environment Minister Paula Lehtomaki, Minister
of Public Administration Mari Kiviniemi, Minister of
Transportation Anu Vehvilainen, party vice chair Antti
Rantakangas, and MP Tuomo Puumala. Posturing among these
figures and their supporters may begin early in 2010, though
none have put themselves forward as candidates yet.
Lethtomaki has stated that she will make her decision on
whether to stand for party leader in the next few weeks,
while also commenting that the party chair must be
immediately ready to act as prime minister.

4. (SBU) NCP leader and Finance Minister Jyrki Katainen
indicated that Vanhanen had recently told him of his decision
while noting that any change of prime minister would require
a formal process following selection of a candidate by the
Centre Party. FM Alexander Stubb (NCP) expressed surprise at
the decision and reinforced that the government would
continue to operate effectively. Opposition SDP leader Jutta
Urpilainen was also surprised and expressed the opinion that
the PM should step down after the June 2010 Centre Party
conference so that the PM would be a party leader better
positioned to deal with current challenges such as
unemployment.

5. (SBU) As the leading party in the government coalition,
Centre has the prerogative to put forward a candidate for
prime minister. If Centre puts forward a new prime minister
in June 2010, the other governing parties will then be
consulted and could theoretically reopen policy discussions
undertaken as part of negotiations to form the governing
coalition. NOTE: We have not heard of any desire to do this.
By June 2010, the governing coalition will have already
presented its last legislative program and budget to
parliament, so there would seem little point in debating
policies further within the coalition at that point. END
NOTE. After concurrence among the governing coalition
parties, the prime minister's candidacy must be approved by a
majority in parliament. S/he will then be formally appointed
by the President.
ORECK

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