Years of political craft: Reform Party turns 20
The center-right Estonian Reform Party, which turned 20 on Thursday, is trying to pull off this most awkward of feats for a modern democratic party in government - extending its stay in power into a new decade.
The proximity of this milestone, constitutionally denied to US presidents and sensibly refused by most Western European heads of government, seems only to have whetted the Reform Party's appetite for power. It may also mark the cementing of the current political status quo in Estonia for another decade or more.
Having provided prime ministers non-stop since April 13, 2005, and formed coalitions with each of the remaining three parties which have made it to the Riigikogu, the Reform Party looks capable of prolonging this run after the next elections in March.
There is some Reform-Party fatigue among the Estonian public. But partly by design and partly by happenstance, the Reform Party finds itself in a position where a plurality of votes - say a third - could deliver it another mandate. The seamless blending of design and happenstance has come to be part of the political genius of the party.
In 2012 it teetered on the brink of collapse, rocked by allegations of funding irregularities. Hundreds of thousands of Estonian kroons (15.6 kroons to the euro) had found their way into party coffers, in cash, delivered to minor party functionaries in plastic supermarket shopping bags by third parties seeking favors or influence. This was the claim made by Silver Meikar, an ex-Reform Party MP, in a newspaper article in May 2012. Noone corroborated his story. The state prosecutor quizzed party members who had made suspicious donations. It then published their accounts. Memorably, one claimed to have borrowed the money from his mother-in-law. The mother-in-law later confirmed that particular story. But others, almost equally outlandish, were left in a legal limbo - the public could sense fraud but could do nothing about it.
Meanwhile, the Reform Party slipped in ratings and suffered from high-level internal strife. It then somehow managed to snatch triumph from the jaws of ignominy in early 2014 when an attempted job-switch between the outgoing prime minister and Estonia's EU commissioner went badly wrong. Siim Kallas, the commissioner (and party leader between 1994-2004) abruptly pulled out of coalition talks in March after a series of allegations appeared in the media about his role in earlier shady financing deals. Andrus Ansip, the erstwhile PM and his eventual replacement in Brussels, had already resigned. Taavi Rôivas, 34, was hurriedly conscripted as prime minister.
And somehow the party's ratings began to climb. Partly, the Reform Party has the war in Ukraine to thank for having put a new shine on its long-term "securitization" policy - trying to cast itself as Estonia's most trusted guardian against Russia. Already in 2010, when Estonia adopted the euro, PM Ansip had said the government's main motive had been both security and political - to move even closer to Germany and "core-EU." This prefigured other serendipities - the groundwork for which was laid in some cases already in the 1990s.
Part of the Reform Party's staying power is economic. Laissez-faire has always been popular in Estonia. It's recently waning attraction has been more than amply compensated by the rise of a professional middle class financed by loans. Having bought houses, flats, cars and other goodies on credit, that sizable portion of the Estonian populace finds itself rationally drawn to the status quo. Especially as the Center Party and Social Democrats keep talking about wanting to introduce progressive taxation (Estonia has a flat-tax rate).
An important factor in Reform Party's triumphal decade has been other parties' unwillingness to lay into it when it's down. A common-sense explanation suggests their cupboards, too, are not free from skeletons, especially when it comes to finances. As a consequence, Estonia's opposition tends to act in a manner which would look unorthodox to most Western observers.
Also, the Reform Party has managed to set up a virtual two-party system in Estonia -- while making the other party permanently unelectable. The "other party" is the Center Party, an authoritarian center-left throwback increasingly reliant on the Russian-speaking vote. The Center Party has either claimed nominal victory in recent elections or come very close to it - with nothing to show for it. It was Reform Party's junior coalition partner twice, most recently in 2005-2007, but became sidelined after the 2007 Bronze soldier riots in Tallinn. Its long-time leader Edgar Savisaar's financial shenanigans involving Russia did not help.
All this puts Reform Party in an enviable position. Rõivas's fresh face allows it to continue reaping the benefits of the dark deals done (or not) in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as the fruits of the deft political footwork which has left the Center Party frustrated and the ill-organized Social Democrats and the right-wing Pro Patria and Res Publica Union stunted.
Going into the next elections, the Reform Party is looking at what paradoxically looks like plain sailing between the security-political Scylla of the looming Russian threat and the incalculable but obviously necessary Charybdis of US support. Neither of these are factors which Estonia can do anything about on its own. Supplemented by the siren song of the latent threat posed by Estonia's Russian minority - voiced in the past few weeks by a number of senior Reform Party figures - stability looks like the winning formula once again.
Ahto Lobjakas is an Estonian columnist.