(The online version of this June 11 story has been corrected to change ‘center-right’ from ‘center’ in the headline)
By Jussi Rosendahl
LAPPEENRANTA, Finland (Reuters) – Finland’s National Coalition Party on Saturday replaced Finance Minister Alexander Stubb as leader, hoping to revive flagging support for the co-ruling center-right group as the country faces tough economic times.
At a party congress, delegates voted by 441 to 361 to replace outspoken Stubb with Interior Minister Petteri Orpo as NCP chief. Orpo said after the vote he would also take over the role of finance minister.
Stubb, who served as prime minister in 2014-15, has faced growing criticism both for his party’s poor showing in polls and for compromises made in the three-party government. A polyglot, social media-savvy sportsman, he has also drawn fire for his image and leadership style.
One of Finland’s most popular politicians in recent years, Stubb’s supporters hoped he could lead the party to election victory. But he failed to enthuse recession-hit citizens.
Beset by problems including the decline of Nokia’s former phone business, Finland is forecast to be the worst performing economy in the European Union this year except for Greece.
“Alex is a phenomenon, a great personality and a kind of man people are not used to see in Finnish politics,” Orpo told reporters in the congress which was held in a small town near the Russian border.
Party members who declined to be named said part of the problem was that Stubb’s outspoken style complicated cooperation with more cautious leaders, President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Juha Sipila.
Orpo, 46, is seen as a consensus-seeker with little experience of international politics, but as interior minister he was hailed across the political spectrum for his handling of the migration crisis.
He gave little light on his policy plans on Saturday but said he would push for new government measures to boost employment and help small companies.
“Going forward, it is very important that we will be a unified team,” Stubb said, vowing loyalty to Orpo.
Stubb was also hit by gaffes. He stirred anger last year by giving parliament incorrect information on a plan to allow local investors to hold securities through an anonymous register, a bill he later dropped.
In November, a man threw a soft drink at Stubb’s face in a cafeteria. In August, two men shot through the windows of his private home with an air rifle during the night.
The ruling coalition, which also includes Prime Minister Sipila’s Centre party and the nationalist Finns party, nearly collapsed last year but has since pushed through labor and healthcare reforms and spending cuts.
A poll by public broadcaster YLE gave the NCP support of 17.7 percent, putting it behind an opposition party and Prime Minister Sipila’s Centre Party.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)