Annika Saarikko, the chairperson of the Centre Party, reacted at a news conference in Helsinki on Thursday, 15 February 2024. Saarikko announced her decision to relinquish the leadership of the traditional party. (Antti Aimo-Koivisto – Lehtikuva)

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ANNIKA SAARIKKO on Thursday announced she will not seek another term as chairperson of the Centre Party.

“My time as chairperson has been unique and challenging,” she was quoted saying at a news conference by Helsingin Sanomat. “I’ve got so much from the Centre. Everything I’ve known how to give back, I’ve given back.”

Saarikko, a 40-year-old fourth-term Member of Parliament from Southwest Finland, was elected to lead the agrarian centre-right party in the second half of 2020. The Centre will select its next chairperson at a party conference organised in Jyväskylä in June.

She revealed at the news conference that she is expecting her third child, adding that the pregnancy was not the decisive factor behind the decision itself, simply its timing. “If everything goes well, our family will have its third child in July,” she said. “I’ll go on family leave from parliamentary work at the end of this spring term.”

The former minister of finance said she hopes the position will appeal to as many party members as possible, with the party conference hopefully turning into a competition that allows the party to examine its stance and ways of working. She declined to comment further on her successor, pledging to support whoever wins the backing of the party conference.

“Olli Rehn’s result in the presidential election sent a strong message about the importance of patience and provinces,” she argued.

Saarikko has held the reigns of a party that has struggled in both opinion polls and elections. She outlined at the beginning of her tenure that the party intends to at least match the 17.5-per-cent share of votes it won in 2017 in the 2021 municipal elections. While the party fell well short of the target, its 14.9-per-cent share of the vote is high in light of its current situation.

Since 2021, the Finns Party has overtaken the Centre as the dominant party in many small and medium-sized rural municipalities. Support for the Centre has hovered around the 10-per-cent mark in polls commissioned by Helsingin Sanomat since October 2022, landing at 10.1 per cent in the one published in January.

Its fall has been exceptional, given it triumphed in the 2015 parliamentary elections with a vote share of 21.1 per cent. The Centre has also held the premiership longer than any other party in the 2000s, wrote Teemu Luukka, a political journalist at Helsingin Sanomat.

Saarikko on Thursday said her tenure has included both failures and successes.

“If you measure my tenure only in terms of popular support, I didn’t meet the expectations. I do think, though, that some pieces have now fallen into place,” she asserted.

“I faced the highly unusual coronavirus pandemic and its decisions, Russia’s war of aggression and its effects on Finland, duties of the minister of finance, and a change in the Centre’s long-term foreign policy stance in favour of Nato membership,” she catalogued.

Aleksi Teivainen – HT

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