Opinion digest: The Reform Party’s new role

Tallinn University political science lecturer Mari-Liis Jakobson. (PM/Scanpix)
11/28/2016 11:59 AM
Category: Opinion

After 17 years in government, Reform needed to find to a new role, and instead of being the manager of the Estonian state become a debater. How the party would get used to its new position, no longer able to dictate the political agenda, remained to be seen, said political scientist Mari-Liis Jakobson in a comment on Vikerraadio on Friday.

The political year culminated in the change of government last week. Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas was voted out of office, and the Reform Party’s time in government of 17 years ended. Last week, two thirds of the ministers in the government changed, including the prime minister.

This had an effect on the Riigikogu as well, as those who had replaced the ministers in the last government had to leave as the Reform Party’s cream of the crop joined the ranks of the members of parliament again.

Though the new government carried might carry more responsibility, the change may well be the biggest for the Reform Party, political scientist Mari-Liis Jakobson said in her comment on ERR’s Vikerraadio on Friday. Since the last time they were in opposition, 17 years had passed, and of all the current MPs, only Igor Gräzin had ever been a Reform Party member under circumstances other than being in power.

To illustrate what an enormous change this is, Jakobson brought up examples of where the today’s highest-ranking members of the party were back then. Former Minister of the Interior, Hanno Pevkur, was at the time a jurist in the municipal administration of Järva-Jaani, and still a student.

The PR stunts available to the government wouldn’t work anymore in the party’s new situation, and it couldn’t dictate the political agenda anymore.

Maris Lauri, who last acted as Minister of Education and Research, had another 15 years to go before she would join the Reform Party. Of the younger ministers of the party, only Kristen Michal was close to the party’s top echelons — as a student also working as an advisor to Reform’s parliamentary group.

The new situation, thus, was very new for many, Jakobson said, never mind that 13 of the party’s MPs had experience working as ministers.

Over 17 years, the Reform Party had become the state party with its own ways, the ministers of which faced very different expectations from what they would have faced if they had joined the government coming out of years of opposition politics. At the same time, this also meant that they couldn’t make any large-scale changes in their particular areas. Political vision and the capacity to bring about change hadn’t been required.

Now opposition politics demanded that the party change its role from manager of the state to that of debater, Jakobson opined. The PR stunts available to the government wouldn’t work anymore in the party’s new situation, and it couldn’t dictate the political agenda anymore. Now the party needed to keep up with the initiative of others, and staying on message wasn’t the aim anymore, rather to be able to participate in as broad a debate as possible.

Once the narrative of the “left turn” was dropped, there was plenty in that coalition agreement that would resonate with supporters of right-wing politics.

In her comment, Jakobson brought up an example of how ignoring this kind of changed situation can be a bad thing: Reform MP Hanno Pevkur, backed up by facts collected and confirmed by government officials when he was a minister, said on Vikerraadio’s “Opposition Hour” on Thursday that there were just three things wrong with the agreement of the new coalition: its tax policy, its tax policy, and its tax policy.

Of course that sounded nice and memorable. But apart from the new coalition’s tax policy, did that mean that the Reform Party thought the rest of the agreement was fine?

Banging on about the new coalition’s tax policy had to sound particularly hollow to those two-thirds of the population who didn’t see powerful cars, beer, and sugary drinks as their essential first choices, Jakobson observed.

The substantial work on the Reform Party’s program, already heralded by several of the party’s more notable members, then was a good thing, and maybe they would indeed find one or the other important point beyond tax policy in the Center Party, the Social Democrats, and IRL’s coalition agreement that the party could then position itself against.

At the same time, the Reform Party’s experience couldn’t be underestimated. They would certainly make a formidable opponent for the new government.

That they would was all but sure. The new government’s view of things might not turn out to be all that different from that of the Reform Party. Once the narrative of the “left turn” was dropped, there was plenty in that coalition agreement that would resonate with supporters of right-wing politics.

How does a liberal party like Reform criticize lower labor taxes, lower taxes on dividends, or taking state-owned companies to the stock market? If at all, it could do so only for procedural reasons.

Also, the Reform Party’s course had never been very different from the new government’s foreign and security policy, its regional policy, its policy in matters of education, research, culture, sports, internal security, and plenty of other areas.

At the same time, the Reform Party’s experience couldn’t be underestimated, Jakobson said. They would certainly make a formidable opponent for the new government. What remained was the hope that they would make use of the parliamentary means at their disposal — and not work by using loyal informants on Toompea, and by spinning stories.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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