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Finnish commissioner bids for national politics despite discouraging polls

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The EU commissioner for international partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, has become the fourth commissioner to leave her post and focus on national politics as she announced her candidacy for the Finnish Social Democratic Party (SDP) presidency, despite polls showing little chance of victory.

Speaking in Tampere on Sunday (19 September), Urpilainen said she was “ready to be the candidate” of SDP and to participate in the presidential campaign starting 2 December. The election will be held on 28 January 2024, with a possible second round on 11 February.

The commissioner is thus taking an “unpaid leave” with “the “option of returning” to the European executive if her candidacy is unsuccessful, said commission spokesman Balazs Ujvari. He added that another commissioner will have to temporarily take over his responsibilities during her absence.

“When the commissioner takes leave, someone who is now in the college will take over, meaning that one of her colleagues will supervise the portfolio. We don’t know yet who, though,” an EU official told Euractiv.

Rumours of Urpilainen leaving her post to run for the presidency have been rife for almost two months, but the urgent need for strong leadership has brought her back to Finnish politics, which she knows well as a former deputy prime minister and finance minister.

Large shoes to fill

Urpilainen’s party, the Finnish Social Democrats, have been faced with a leadership vacuum since Sanna Marin resigned as leader of the Social Democratic Party last September. Her resignation came after a general election defeat that brought Petteri Orpo’s centre-right coalition to power.

With that in mind, Urpilainen delivered a powerful speech at the SPD’s party committee on Sunday in Tampere, southern Finland, with “leaving no one behind” as her central theme.

“Dear friends, I am at your disposal so that no one is left behind: no young, no old, no brother, no sister”, Urpilainen said at the end of her speech, reminding that the role of the Finnish president is to go beyond party lines.

“A red-green woman committed to Europeanism and international partners can fit [into this election campaign] alongside right-wing and centre-right men”, Urpilainen said.

Urpilainen emphasised that a multicentric and rules-based world order is important for a small country, especially as Russia is “currently violating international law in Ukraine”.

According to her, Finland will also have a more global role to play, as she believes that poverty, climate change, and inequalities are issues related to the destiny of humanity that need to be addressed through engagement with the “global south”.

Unfavourable conditions

Supporters of Urpilainen insisted that the fact that she had engaged in such a short-term political campaign was proof of her determination to serve her country regardless of the polls.

Indeed, Urpilainen’s candidacy failed to attract mass support, and she remains largely an outsider, even within her own party.

Only 4.6% of all respondents would vote for Urpilainen in the first round of the presidential election, according to a EuropElects polling average for Euractiv.

Furthermore, according to a Taloustukkumis/Yle poll, 45% of the Finnish Social Democrats who expressed their position would instead vote for seasoned Green Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto and 16% for centre-right former prime minister Alexander Stubb.

Only 13% of the interrogated Social Democrats would vote for their very own Urpilainen.

“Frankly, this is the coup de grâce for the SPD. Insisting that she should be her party’s representative after Sanna Marin is a gift and a guaranteed vote for just about every other presidential candidate.”, a source with knowledge of the matter told Euractiv, adding that her almost ten-year absence from the Finnish political scene didn’t help.

Another commissioner leaves

With her decision, Urpilainen joins a growing list of European Commissioners jumping off the EU ship for the apparent safety of the shores of national politics as European Commission President Von der Leyen’s term ends ahead of the elections in June 2024.

“It would be a shame if it became a trend. If anything, it would make the Commission look very bad”, the source told Euractiv.

Urpilainen now finds herself in the same situation as one of the Commission’s leading figures, Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, who stepped down in September from her Competition portfolio to campaign for the presidency of the European Investment Bank (EIB), leaving open the possibility of resuming her duties in the event of a setback.

Former commissioners Mariya Gabriel (Culture) of Bulgaria and Green Deal’s Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands resigned in May and August respectively to focus on national politics.

Gabriel, now Bulgaria’s foreign minister, has been replaced in the Commission by her compatriot Iliana Ivanova and Frans Timmermans, a candidate in the Dutch general election on 22 November, has been replaced in Brussels by former Dutch foreign minister Wopke Hoekstra.

[Additional reporting by Aurélie Pugnet. Infographics by Tobias Gerhard Schminke. Edited by Alice Taylor]

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