Finnish parliament elects woman premier

June 22, 2010 12:00 am

, HELSINKI, Jun 22 – Finland\’s parliament on Tuesday voted to make Mari Kiviniemi, 41, the Nordic country\’s second woman prime minister following the resignation last week of second-term premier Matti Vanhanen.

Kiviniemi, who was smiling and looked relaxed ahead of the ballot, received 115 votes in favour of her appointment while 56 of Finland\’s 200 parliamentarians voted against the motion in a session that was webcast live.

Outgoing Centre Party premier Vanhanen was among the first to congratulate her after the vote.

Although the election clears the way for Kiviniemi to take over as head of Finland\’s four-party, centre-right coalition government, President Tarja Halonen still needs to give her formal blessing to the change.

Halonen is scheduled to officially dissolve Vanhanen\’s government before appointing the new prime minister and her cabinet at a ceremony at 1400 GMT.

Women will then hold the two top posts in Finland for only the second time in its history as Halonen continues her second presidential term.

Considered a capable, knowledgeable and serious politician, Kiviniemi will likely serve as prime minister until the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for April 2011, and the Centre Party hopes her scandal-free image will boost ratings and help it remain in power also beyond the vote.

She has served as Finland\’s public administration and local government minister since 2007 and has been in parliament since 1995.

She was also minister for foreign trade and development for six months in 2005-2006, but through her years in politics, she has kept a relatively low profile, and remains fairly unfamiliar to most Finns.

Her road to the frontline of Finnish politics began when Vanhanen, 54, announced unexpectedly last December he would step down as head of the ruling Centre Party and curtail his second term as prime minister due to leg surgery.

A drawn-out campaign financing scandal surrounding Vanhanen and his party are however widely believed to have contributed to the decision, and Kiviniemi\’s untainted image helped her win the race to lead the Centre Party earlier this month, making her the obvious prime ministerial candidate.

Vanhanen, too, began his premiership amid political turmoil, taking the reins from Finland\’s first woman prime minister Anneli Jaeaetteenmaeki, who was in office for barely two months in 2003 before being forced out due to a scandal relating to documents on Finland\’s position on the war in Iraq.

Kiviniemi has her work cut out for her as head of government.

At the weekend, she headed preliminary cabinet talks on possible adjustments to the government programme, but outlined no major policy shifts, saying only she would prioritise boosting Finland\’s export-reliant economy, which has been hard-hit by the global financial downturn.

Following the scandals of recent years, commentators also expect Kiviniemi as prime minister to work to return the nation\’s confidence in politics.

"The country yearns for political leadership," Anetro Mukka wrote in a column in leading daily Helsingin Sanomat, adding that Vanhanen\’s seven years as head of government had left a "confidence gap" in society.
"Governance without wise, visionary politicians is like a body without a heart," Mukka said.

It is likely that parliamentarian Tapani Toelli, 59, will replace Kiviniemi as municipalities minister and that no other ministerial changes will be made.


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