Opinion digest: Leadership change in Reform needed for potential coalition with Center Party ({{commentsTotal}})

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu Sven Mikser (SDE).
Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu Sven Mikser (SDE). Source: (Martin Dremljuga /ERR)

For a potential future coalition with the Center Party, the Reform Party needed to change its leader as well, Social Democratic MP and chairman of the Riigikogu’s Foreign Affairs Committee Sven Mikser wrote in a comment on social media on Friday.

Mikser wrote that the most interesting detail of Thursday’s double press conference of the Center Party had been Jüri Ratas’ confirmation that an influential part of the Reform Party was looking to establish closer contact with Center, with a view to a possible government coalition in the future.

But, Mikser pointed out, in the noise around Ratas’ announcement that he was going to run against Savisaar for the party’s chairmanship, the second part of his statement hadn’t been given the attention it deserved: Ratas said that negotiations about a potential coalition could only begin once both parties had changed their leaders.

Generation as well as leadership change needed in both parties

Though this might be wishful thinking on Ratas’ part, Mikser opined that there was plenty of logic in such a scenario. In the current dynamic political situation in Estonia, nobody would want to miss any opportunity that might present itself.

What was exceptional about the whole situation was that the two parties were sounding each other out behind their leaders’ backs. But even that couldn’t really be seen as an unexpected development, Mikser wrote.

Mikser certainly has a point assuming that a lot is changing in both of the country’s major parties. Looking at what happened on Sept. 24 in the electoral college, namely that Reform’s Siim Kallas didn’t win because representatives of his own party very likely didn’t vote in his favor, the Center Party isn’t the only one that has recently grown heartily tired of its own political dinosaurs.

But quite unlike the Reform Party, Center’s leadership change has already begun. By now, its current and long-term chairman Edgar Savisaar has lost his own power base. Except for a circle of loyal party members, there isn’t much left he can draw from in the upcoming fight for the party’s top office.

He’s still suspended as the mayor of Tallinn; the lion’s share of his assets and money has been seized by the authorities; and it is currently the party that is paying him his only income. And though Center’s progressive wing around Kadri Simson and Jüri Ratas are well aware of Savisaar’s importance for future elections, they have succeeded in pushing him and his disciples off the center stage.

In his comment on social media, Mikser went on to write that while this whole process could be followed in real time, the ongoing changes in the Reform Party had been much harder to spot. But the party’s discontent with Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas’ leadership couldn’t be denied any longer.

Beyond the ambitions of individual members of Reform, there also was an objective reason for unrest, Mikser wrote. For the first time in almost twenty years, the Reform Party had lost control of Estonia’s political agenda. And not because the remainder of the political parties had united against it, but because the party, and with it Rõivas’ government, had been very badly managed.

This leadership increasingly made the impression of working on the principle of just “kicking the can down the alley”, Mikser said. Problems didn’t get solved, but put off, again and again, in the hope that they would eventually solve themselves.

Presidential election evidence that Reform losing control, on top of running out of ideas

The weakness of Rõivas’ leadership had become particularly apparent during the presidential elections. In Mikser’s opinion, at no time in Estonia’s more recent history has a comparable advantage been gambled away more thoroughly. And not just because Siim Kallas or Marina Kaljurand weren’t made president.

Even if the Reform Party didn’t have what it took to win the election, there would have been plenty of opportunities to avoid the kind of damage it eventually suffered, Mikser wrote, going on to describe two of them:

One opportunity would have been Prime Minister Rõivas telling his party colleagues that in the interest of the stability of the government and the party, going for the presidency this year did not make sense. Telling them that the health of the governing coalition and holding Stenbock House (the seat of Estonia’s goverment; ed.) was more important.

The party could still have insisted on a candidate it could have found acceptable, or at least one it could have lived with.

Mikser also pointed out that Rõivas had received plenty of advice to the effect, among others from former prime minister and party leader Andrus Ansip, but that apparently he decided to disregard it. There were two possibilities there, Mikser opined, one being that Rõivas thought he knew better, the other that he simply didn’t have the power required to see it through.

The other opportunity to get the process under control, according to Mikser, would have been to unite the party behind a single candidate and tell Marina Kaljurand that it had to be Siim Kallas. Point out to her that she hadn’t even joined the party, and that if she did, if she were a candidate in the next Riigikogu elections and joined party politics, it would be her turn after five years.

But instead, the process was allowed to take its own course — which it did, with a result nobody had expected.

Increasing unrest despite brave front

Now the prime minister could of course put on a brave front, but that didn’t change the fact that in the most important moment he had lost control of his party, Mikser wrote.

And now Kallas’ supporters were convinced they could have won with sufficient support of their own party, while those of Kaljurand thought exactly the same. All those who hadn’t sided with either candidate now found that the party had taken a beating and nothing had come of it, and had to watch as their control of what was going on in the country was slipping.

The responsibility for it all, Mikser pointed out, was with the leadership of the Reform Party.

Mikser ended his statement saying that he couldn’t say whether or not contacts between the Center and Reform Party had been able to find common ground. He also pointed out that he didn’t know whether or not unrest in Reform had reached the level where Rõivas was already being undermined.

For the governing party, changing its leader was of course very difficult, Mikser wrote. But it couldn’t be denied that Ratas’ comment had a certain logic to it, and that it would very likely pay to watch out for further advances of the two parties.

Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn