By Denise Wall
HELSINKI, April 6 (Xinhua) -- Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen has announced his plan to step down in June. Analysts believed that his successor will face several challenges, the most important of which will be leading the National Coalition Party into parliamentary elections in 2015.
Back in August 2013, rumors had begun to swirl about Katainen's possible departure from government. At the time the premier dismissed the talk as hearsay, telling the national broadcaster Yle that he would consider his future plans in the spring.
Despite last year's red flag, Katainen's announcement appears to have taken party and government members by surprise. Ville Pernaa, who heads up the Parliamentary Research Unit at the University of Turku in southwest Finland, pointed out however that the National Coalition Party can fall back on several well-known and skilled cabinet members to succeed Katainen as party chief and premier.
"It's true that it's not easy to jump into the double role of party chair and prime minister from far away. But there are very experienced people in cabinet who can take on those roles," Pernaa told Xinhua.
The political researcher said the lead candidates include Employment and Economy Minister Jan Vapaavuori, European Affairs and Foreign Trade Minister Alexander Stubb, Local Government and Transport Minister Henna Virkkunen and head of the National Coalition parliamentary group Petteri Orpo.
"It would be very surprising if the new chair isn't from the cabinet," Pernaa added.
Pernaa predicted that the party would be thinking tactically and keeping an eye on politics on the ground as well as at the national and international level in making its choice.
"The party chair must appeal to the average voter. At the end of the day the chair is chosen by party representatives from all parts of the country," he noted, hinting that Stubb's urban orientation could be a disadvantage.
Katainen's announcement of his decision to seek out a high-level European or international post came as the ink was drying on the administration's final tour de force for its term in office: a three-billion euro austerity package designed to make a dent in government debt and bring public finances on an even keel.
The package didn't come without some fallout, as the Left Alliance exited the government dissatisfied with the harshness of some of the measures and their potential impact on the poor. The government moved swiftly to patch the holes in the cabinet by assigning their ministerial portfolios to other ministries.
According to Pernaa, all of this means that the major challenge facing the new National Coalition chief and prime minister will be next year's general election.
"The timing of this decision was made with the election in mind. The party chair will have a full year to prepare for campaigning and to gain some experience as prime minister ahead of the election," he explained.
On the foreign policy front, the university researcher noted that tension in Europe has risen to a high not seen for decades due to the current face-off between Russia and the West over Ukraine and Crimea. However he pointed out that the current cabinet has the experience to grapple with the situation.
Moreover he noted, the next premier will continue to benefit from security, military and other advisers in the same way that Katainen has.
"The Foreign Minister remains the same. Erkki Tuomioja is a very experienced cabinet member and has handled the current situation extremely well so far," he concluded.
Katainen's second five-year term at the helm of the party will end on June 14, when party leaders elect a new leader.