HELSINKI (Reuters) - After only a few years of party leadership, Finland’s next prime minister Juha Sipila beat electoral expectations by emphasizing his business acumen as a telecom millionaire executive while maintaining traditional Finnish roots that emphasize self-sufficiency.
One of his companies has built a pilot wood chip power plant in a northern town, allowing a block to switch off from the national power grid. He converted a Chevy pick-up truck to run on wood chips. And Sipila built a house for his family in three months.
He also belongs to “Word of Peace”, part of a Lutheran revival movement that helps to explain his appeal to conservative rural voters who are the foundation of his Centre Party.
But as a successful businessman in the telecoms sector, the 53-year-old has an image that lets him reach out to an urban middle class demanding reform and fast action to trim welfare and other state spending.
Sipila rose through the ranks quickly at mobile phone network component maker Solitra, becoming chief executive and majority owner. In 1996, he pocketed around 12 million euros when Solitra was sold to U.S.-based ADC Communications.
The Centre Party led the Finnish government in 2007-2011 but suffered a major loss in 2011 elections after the emergence of suspicious funding arrangements by some party members.
But with Sipila, poll support picked up as voters became frustrated by rising unemployment and bickering in the ruling coalition, leading them to punish National Coalition and Social Democrats.
While campaigning, Sipila toed a careful line in debates and was criticized for hiding his cards for fear of losing momentum.
“Sipila shows up almost as a nonpolitical figure, someone who seeks solutions and does not hang himself in any ideology, a converging force in the time of a crisis,” said senior researcher Mari K Niemi from University of Turku.
Many of his party’s policies are characterized by vagueness. The Centre Party includes some vocal EU critics and promoters of warmer relation with Russia. When in opposition, the party voted against the EU bailouts of Greece, Spain and Cyprus.
Sipila was critical of a recent hawkish Nordic defense ministers’ joint statement over Russia, and unlike Alexander Stubb, the outgoing pro-NATO prime minister, he sees military non-alignment as the best solution for Finland.
The party’s domestic election program differs from other major parties mainly for its focus on rural issues.
With his roots in northern Finland, Sipila wants to make use of renewable resources in a country rich in forests. He has proposed a new 1.5 billion euro state fund to invest in start-ups.
Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Eric Walsh