Tõnis Saarts: EKRE has proved itself unfit for government

ERR's online talk show Otse uudistemajast summed up the outgoing political year when Estonia got a new government, EKRE has been forced to replace three ministers and the prime minister's jaw is cramping from apologizing.

Sharing the studio were host Rain Kooli, political scientist Tõnis Saarts and head of the Praxis Center for Policy Studies Tarmo Jüristo.

Tõnis Saarts said that the past few months have seen the inevitable manifest – a right-wing populist party like EKRE included in the government could only result in one style of action and communication.

"Looking at EKRE leaders, there is no doubt everything will continue much as it has because they will not be able to bring their policies to the coalition. That means they need a different way to consolidate their voters. This rhetoric we're seeing is aimed at their voters. The rest of society is simply meant to put up with it," Saarts said.

Tarmo Jüristo likened the coalition to a multiple hostage situation where every party has reason not to let it fall apart.

"It is difficult to imagine a different combination where Jüri Ratas could be prime minister. Yesterday's (Tuesday – ed.) pharmacy reform vote in the Riigikogu could have been the first real sign to suggest the coalition is coming undone. Isamaa has its own reasons for maintaining this coalition as it is very difficult to see its pension reform being passed by a different one. In some ways, EKRE has the most comfortable seat at the table," Jüristo said.

Saarts said he thinks the government will not make it four years. History seems to support the hypothesis as no government has lasted from elections to elections in Estonia, with the average one lasting 550 days. "Looking at the dynamic in the government today, it is difficult to see this one being any different," Saarts said.

The analyst said parties would start making preparations for local elections in 2021 toward the end of next year, which will be the most critical moment for the coalition.

"For the Centre Party, the question of the behavior of Russian voters in Tallinn and Ida-Viru County remains key – whether they will be motivated to turn out and protect the coalition. Both Centre and Isamaa will also be navigating a minefield in the form of a referendum to amend the Constitution as concerns the definition of a family that should coincide with local elections. This will see EKRE fill the room. So, these will not be local elections so much as they will be an EKRE referendum. The question is whether Centre and Isamaa want to go along with it," Saarts said.

He agreed with Rain Kooli in that Russian voters seem to have given Centre's coalition with EKRE silent approval and that conservative views are more widespread among older Russian-speakers.

"That is what [Edgar] Savisaar used to stand for back in the day. EKRE rather has an image problem [for Russian voters]. Can EKRE change that? Or perhaps someone wants to change that from outside Estonia?" Saarts offered.

Jüristo said that Centre's local government elections result depends on how successful they will be in isolating local governments from state level politics. He added that the general background of the coalition's conduct, created by Mart Järvik's scandals, wind farm skirmishes and public accusations of political corruption, might prove problematic

"I do not remember the last time something like this was on the agenda for the central government. Political corruption has rather been a local level problem. Now it has arrived for its central counterpart, and it came with EKRE. While EKRE can keep it contained among their own voters, how much damage will it do when local elections starting drawing near? That will be a key issue for Centre," Jüristo said.

Saarts said the matter will become acute once Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart and other leading Tallinn centrists take a look at ratings and fail to see Centre making headway. "That is when serious questions will be put to Ratas," he said.

Saarts: EKRE clearly not fit for government

Tõnis Saarts said that EKRE being a part of the current coalition is good in that everyone can see what it means to have a right-wing populist party in the government.

"As things stand, it is likely that politicians will try and avoid coalitions that include EKRE over the coming years or decades. We can see them ignoring basic coalition rules. For example, that ministers do their own thing instead of assuming the role of prime minister by commenting on everything and interfering in every little thing. It is clear EKRE is not a good fit for a coalition government and what they really want is to rule alone," Saarts said.

Jüristo said that all coalition partners realize their marriage is not one of love. "It is not always pleasant, but it is what it is today – a situation where no one has an easy way out. But what could see coalition partners vote against each other's initiatives in the Riigikogu, instead of just abstaining, I cannot imagine," he said.

Saarts said, commenting on results of 2019 polls, that EKRE saw its rating tumble after the Järvik scandal (former rural affairs minister Mart Järvik – ed.) and the question now is whether the party will be able to restore its support rating at 16-17 percent.

"The main problem for EKRE is that they cannot get more than 20 percent of the vote, and I believe they never will if they keep up their recent style. It is a major challenge for them. For EKRE to dominate Estonian politics, it needs a rating of over 30 percent that would make it part of any coalition," Saarts explained.

Jüristo said he rather believes EKRE have reached their potential among voters.

Regarding Centre ratings, Saarts said that he believes Jüri Ratas secretly wants to win back rural areas voters who have gravitated toward the national conservatives. "Once support for EKRE starts slipping and rural area voters returning to Centre, Ratas might reconsider the usefulness of the coalition. But as long as Centre has not reached its strategic goal of overshadowing EKRE, he will suffer the coalition," Saarts said.

Jüristo said that if EKRE continues provoking skirmishes with [Minister of Social Affairs] Tanel Kiik or the Ministry of Defence, it might be difficult for coalition partner's to swallow.

Reform and social democrats inept in opposition

Regarding opposition parties, Saarts said that the Social Democratic Party (SDE) has realized it will take them some time to bounce back and is busy drawing up new plans. "Provided they can manage a good local elections result, they will be back on the map that would be a good start for Riigikogu elections," Saarts said.

Jüristo recalled how EKRE stood out when they were in the opposition – making noise, taking credit for things they had done and for those they hadn't. "That is what the opposition lacks today – drawing up no-confidence motions isn't what voters find effective."

Saarts said that the Reform Party is still learning how to act in the opposition and the social democrats' inactivity mean both are unfit today.

The analyst added that the two parties' voters might feel it is more sensible to vote for the non-parliamentary Estonia 200 at the next elections because of this ineptitude.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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