Finland’s EU Superstar Stubb Loses Fight to Be Party Leader

  • Interior Minister Orpo wins National Coalition party vote
  • New party leader expected to take over as finance minister

Alexander Stubb, Finland’s finance minister and its premier europhile, lost a battle for party leadership as a no-nonsense insider successfully challenged him to become head of the National Coalition in a bid to revive its domestic fortunes.

The center-right party on Saturday at a congress in the eastern town of Lappeenranta voted to oust Stubb in favor of Interior Minister Petteri Orpo, 46.

“We must be more brave, more innovative, more agile, in the party but also in
the government,”  Orpo said at a news conference after his election. “As party leader, I expect to become finance minister because it is central post in the government.”

Alexander Stubb
Alexander Stubb
Photographer: Henrik Kettunen/Bloomber

The victorious Orpo is in line for the finance job because the post is usually reserved for the leader of the junior party in the ruling coalition, which also includes Prime Minister Juha Sipila’s Center Party and The Finns, a nationalist party. In an interview last month, Orpo said the state of the Finnish economy was “alarmingly bad” and called on broader measures to revive growth.

Stubb has been blamed for failing to lift the party’s fortunes since he was elected its leader two years ago. The National Coalition peaked in 2011, when it became Finland’s biggest party, but came a poor third in last year’s general election and hasn’t recovered since.

The Sipila government has been seeking to cut labor costs that according to government calculations are as much as 15 percent higher than trading partners like Sweden and Germany. The government this month persuaded trade unions and employers to agree on a pact that includes wage cuts, longer working hours without added pay and lower holiday bonuses in the public sector.

Meanwhile, the economy has only just emerged from a three-year recession, with Moody’s Investors Service stripping the nation of its top credit rating last week.

Different style

Stubb and Orpo have similar political views but differ substantially in style. 

A former prime minister and foreign minister, Stubb likes to portray himself as a well-connected polyglot who is at ease in the company of global leaders. He speaks five languages fluently and has studied in the U.S., Belgium and the U.K. The 48-year-old is also a keen triathlon athlete and a social media darling -- his Twitter account has more than a quarter of a million followers.

His challenger is seen as a far more traditional leader. Orpo has spent his entire political career within the confines of Finland, where he has also served as agriculture minister. He has strong connections to the party’s grassroots and local leaderships. 

"The mood inside the National coalition has changed," said Markku Jokisipila, head of the Centre for Parliamentary Studies at the University of Turku. "Two years ago, Stubb’s international experience and skills were considered as absolute assets, now these same features seem to have turned against him.”

Orpo says one of his main tasks as leader would be to reconnect with the middle class as Finland attempts to regain competitiveness through a labor pact between trade unions and employers.

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