Center Party’s growing pains
The country’s largest parties are going through substantial change. While the Reform Party is trying to find its course after a rather hard fall, the Center Party, after a decade in opposition, faces a cultural change, and the need to rid itself of the greed and cronyism of the Savisaar era.
Since Center Party chairman Jüri Ratas took office as prime minister on Nov. 23, almost every day some piece of negative news about the party has surfaced. Be it the dubious legacy of its former long-time chairman and suspended mayor of Tallinn, or other expressions of the kind of greed and cronyism that ruled when Savisaar ran the show, Ratas has not yet been granted a chance to just get on with what his party waited to do for a decade: govern.
Changing Center’s culture will take time
The problems included personal matters of the new leading staff on Toompea Hill, with Minister of Rural Affairs Martin Repinski stepping down after less than two weeks over bigger and smaller scandals involving his person and business, and with chairman of the Finance Committee of the Riigikogu, Mihhail Stalnuhhin, still refusing to talk to Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR) over an incident in 2014 that did not even revolve around his person.
“We haven’t founded a new party, we have taken the lead of the party with all its history, and this history has been such a heavy burden,” Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson (Center) told ETV’s “Aktuaalne Kaamera” newscast on Sunday.
Simson added that the same party came with a program and the clear expectations of its voters, a strong base of voters at that, which meant that there was more good than bad for them to work with.
Kaju: Current problems only natural
Political analyst Andreas Kaju commented that the current frequency of scandals was not at all surprising. Away from government for a decade, the Center Party was not transparent, which couldn’t stay this way. That again brought out problems that they needed to deal with.
“The main issue is mostly that there is no habit in this party to deal with these problems, or how to make some of these things public, talk, and how to deal with the media and the public concerning these matters in a way that they don’t grow bigger and bigger,” Kaju said.
According to Kaju, the Center Party’s leaders need to change a lot, as up to this point there had been a power vertical focused on a single person, and that person’s loyal circle.
Getting rid of Savisaar had been the most difficult part of that change, and now the party was faced with all the necessary work on details and nuances. How to cleanse the organization, how to introduce transparent processes in the political decision-making process, all these were matters the party had never had to deal with in the past, Kaju pointed out.
Potential financial issues looming
Part of the shady dealings of the past the party has to get out of the way are the €275,000 euros Savisaar allegedly accepted in illegal political donations, and the letters of guarantee to the party’s long-time advertising partner, Paavo Pettai, in the amount of €730,000. Both could mean serious financial issues for the party. As a consequence, the party has now made it impossible for single members of its leadership to enter financial commitments, and has put up its Toompea Hill headquarters for sale.
The culture shift in the party becomes apparent in another comment of Simson’s. The right of a single leadership member to enter into deals in the name of the party had existed until 2016. “As the oldest Estonian party, we have lived in the conviction for 25 years that this was based on trust, that nobody would do something like that,” Simson said.
Kaju: Party needs to talk about its issues, and move on
This all needed to change now, Kaju opined. But now this could be done, as new people were running the party. At the same time, this meant plenty of problems, as the current leadership was based on a sort of internal coalition as well, with plenty of people in all kinds of places who now had to step out of the dark and into the light as well.
The right response to this was to talk about it all publicly, Kaju said, accept responsibility, and then move on. After power shifts like the one recently seen in the Center Party, the typical thing to do was to flock around the new leaders, which tended to settle things quite swiftly.