Savisaar's demise and the rise of Jüri Ratas ({{commentsTotal}})

Edgar Savisaar (left) and Jüri Ratas at Savisaar's 67th birthday party.
Edgar Savisaar (left) and Jüri Ratas at Savisaar's 67th birthday party. Source: (Evelyn Kungla)

Jüri Ratas became Prime Minister of Estonia on Nov. 23 last year. This would not have been possible without his becoming chairman of the Center Party on Nov. 5, an event that shook Estonian politics to its core and finally changed the status quo that had held the Reform Party in power for 17 years.

At 6:36 p.m. on Nov. 5 last year, ERR reported that in the town of Paide, Jüri Ratas had just been elected chairman of the Center Party with 654 votes. Yana Toom (Center/ALDE), supported by outgoing chairman Edgar Savisaar, only got 348 votes.

The end of the Savisaar era opened Stenbock House to the Center Party and to Jüri Ratas, and forced the Reform Party into opposition after 17 years in government.

All parties have one or the other thing to learn from this. As writer and editor Kaupo Meiel wrote here on ERR a year ago, just like it is good form to name the architect of a noteworthy house, it would be nice to know the architect of one or the other political and social process, and who really replaces one government with another and makes presidents.

What remains of the events a year ago is first of all the realization that no prime minister can run the state with the kind of self-centered passion that makes him lose control of the government as well as his own party. Such was the problem of the previous prime minister, Taavi Rõivas (Reform).

Rõivas wasn't able to get to a decision if and how his coalition (of Reform, the Social Democrats, and IRL; ed.) could possibly agree on a candidate for last year's presidential elections. He dithered between Marina Kaljurand and Siim Kallas and didn't push for a consensus candidate that all coalition partners could have agreed on.

The presidential elections in parliament as well as in the electoral college ended in a fiasco that eventually broke the back of Rõivas's government, pushed the Social Democrats and the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) closer to the Center Party, and to the Reform Party's great shock introduced Kersti Kaljulaid, who was later elected president.

Something similar happened in 2001, when internal turmoil in the coalition of then-prime minister Mart Laar (of IRL precursor Pro Patria) allowed for the election of Arnold Rüütel (People's Union, supported by the Center Party). Laar's government fell shortly after.

In 2016 it was Rõivas who didn't realize that despite the fact that he had repeatedly rejected any kind of cooperation with the Center Party, there were those among his own people who were eyeing a potential coalition with the Center Party in a post-Savisaar era.

Separate talks between some Reform and Center Party members undermined trust within Rõivas's coalition. He didn't notice at all how he was drifting away from the other key players in the coalition, Jevgeni Ossinovski (SDE) and Margus Tsahkna (IRL), and how cooperation and trust were getting weaker and weaker. In the end, Rõivas, appearing abroad as Estonia's best salesman, didn't actually have a government anymore, he was merely a prime minister hoping that his problem would somehow solve itself. But that didn't happen.

In his last weeks as an opposition politician, Jüri Ratas (Center) said that coalitions usually fell apart from within, and not due to outside factors.

One of the ministers at the time later said that "We didn't want to be Rõivas's Pokémon." The augmented reality game Pokémon Go has players chase after virtual creatures, while they are running around in reality.

The reality at the time was that Ossinovski and Tsahkna were looking for a way out of the coalition with the Reform Party.

The Social Democrats and IRL would have remained Rõivas's Pokémon if Jüri Ratas and his wing in the Center Party hadn't managed to depose Edgar Savisaar as party chairman. As the other parties all excluded working with Savisaar, he acted as a kind of guarantee to all the other players that the Center Party would remain in opposition. In turn, this means he also guaranteed the Reform Party's position in power.

Ratas as well as the other politicians of his wing in the Center Party, Kadri Simson and Mailis Reps among them, played the long game, which required patience and nerves. Should the people who had a part in it ever write their memoirs, a chapter in them could be called "How to take over a party". That a takeover was becoming increasingly more likely was apparent in March 2016, when Kadri Simson was elected chairwoman of the Center Party's group in the Riigikogu with 14 to 12 votes against the wishes of the party's leadership, which at the time still supported Savisaar.

This was followed by the presidential campaign of Mailis Reps and dozens of meetings all around the country in which Reps, Ratas, Simson, Mihhail Korb, and Jaak Aab carefully made hundreds of party members understand that the time for change had come, and that otherwise the party would remain in opposition well beyond the 2019 parliamentary elections.

They were persistent, and they succeeded. They made Jüri Ratas the new leader, who appeared more neutral to the party's different wings than Kadri Simson would have. By mid-October Jüri Ratas's victory at the party's congress in early November was on the horizon.

While after his victory Ratas said that the Center Party's new aims were to replace the Reform Party in government, to win the local elections, and to lead Estonia out of economic stagnation, his real worry was the turmoil in the Center Party following his election, and keeping it from breaking up. This meant that he needed results to justify his putsch against Savisaar, and that he needed them soon.

Leading the party out of opposition and himself becoming prime minister was the ideal way to go. At this point, the disgruntled Social Democrats and IRL in Rõivas's government were only waiting for Ratas to give them the signal. With that, the Center Party drew the longest straw in its history, while the Social Democrats and IRL were about to take the greatest risk in the history of their parties, a fact that this year's local elections showed as well.

On Nov. 23 a year ago Jüri Ratas took office as prime minister. The first government meeting took place the next day. At the beginning of the ensuing press conference, journalists shouted that there was no sound. Ratas apologetically said, "Yes, we should probably switch on the microphone. Thanks for your help, cooperation leads to success!"

Keeping the microphones on in a coalition and hearing and listening to each other is difficult. Without it, there can be no cooperation, and without cooperation a government won't last. Easier said than done, as we saw a year ago.

Editor: Dario Cavegn



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