The March 1 parliamentary elections resulted in a far right party Estonian Conservative Peoples' Party (EKRE) winning 7 seats in the 101-member Estonian Parliament. Since the win, several scandals have rocked the party, as their record and previous statements are being analyzed by the media, bringing out extreme views ranging from questioning the numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust to discussions about the positive sides of German Nazi politics.
It appears that at least one of their campaign promises mirrors one from that era. Aro Velmet has analysed why the media, analysts and other parties did not want to know or care about this before.
It would be easy to explain the success of EKRE as a counter-reaction to entrenched liberal democratic values or opposition of the same-sex partnership law by a vocal, frustrated minority that has failed to keep up with the times and adopt European values, but that does not tell the whole story (or explain why there are so many relatively successful young people involved). I use Cas Mudde’s framework to show that EKRE is much more mainstream (and thus dangerous) than the simplistic explanations show.
The ideological underpinnings of EKRE are fairly standard far right stuff: a mixture of nativism, authoritarianism and populism. Nativism plays an important role for EKRE, their leaders have emphasized time and again that they believe that people who belong to one ethnic group should live in their own land with their nation and not somewhere else. Nativism is a rather mainstream way of thinking in Estonia because of historical traumas, and many parties exploit it in one way or another (but not as forcefully as EKRE). Authoritarianism is present in their election manifesto in which they strive to fight with “anti-state activities” and populism is embodied in their anti-establishment rhetoric, arguing that the “homogenous will of the people” should override “undemocratic” institutional constraints or constitutional protections for minorities (most clearly evidenced by the demand to hold a referendum on same-sex partnership regulation). Each of these ideologies holds wide support in Estonia, which means that ideologically EKRE lands on a fertile ground and has considerable potential to grow.
In terms of nativist attitudes of the public, it is not a secret that tolerance towards people with a migrant background is low in Estonia. Even though Estonia gets the least number of asylum applicants in the EU (ca 100), public opinion surveys show that people perceive immigration as a threat to the Estonian nation. Strict citizenship and naturalization policies have resulted in low integration rates for the ethnic Russians that make up around 25 percent of the population. Fueling ethnic based antagonism is still the main modus operandi of all parties to win votes at elections, depriving people of real free choices. Taking account of all the above, it is clear that nativist attitudes are present in Estonian mainstream.
Authoritarian attitudes are also present, some people prefer a strong ruler and would like to regulate the behavior of others even if it does not concern them. For example, the ban on drinking alcohol in public was quickly reinstated after protests in the media. Also there is wide support for harsh punishments for criminals.
Anti-establishment attitudes are also gaining ground, both because of fatigue with the long-term rule of the Reform party, the disconnect between successful elites and less successful masses. There are low levels of trust of the parliament and government. EKRE probably would have received more votes, if the anti-establishment center-right Free Party had not also taken a lot of the protest vote.
Thus it would be wrong to claim that EKRE represents ideology or attitudes that are shared only by a minority. They gain support by presenting the same basic ideology that is espoused by mainstream parties, but in a purer, more ideological form. They exploit the same basic attitudes, but in more extreme ways.
The scary conclusion is that EKRE still has vast potential in terms of ideology and attitudes; what is holding them back is their lack of professionalism in messaging and internal organization. Now that they receive funding from the state, they can work on these organizational matters. It is a stark warning for all centrist and mainstream parties that in order to defend liberal democracy, they have to let go of the previous antagonisms and be much more engaged with the public and willing to clearly articulate more value-based messages on issues that are not usually considered important by them.
The mainstream parties should not allow the far right to monopolize divisive issues, because this is what makes them thrive. EKRE was the only party that took up the civil partnership law and made opposition to it into their issue. Not having any other party to challenge them on this issue was the reason they were able to gain support quickly.
Kari Käsper is one of the founders of the Estonian Human Rights Center and manages its activities.The opinions in this article are those of the author. The article was first published on www.karijournal.com