Saarts: Split between openness and closeness in Estonian society

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The emergence of EKRE has created a new fissure in Estonian society – a split between openness and closeness, finds Tõnis Saarts, docent of comparative politics at Tallinn University.

Estonian society has so-called winners and losers, in other words, people who feel they are involved and those who feel rejected. Professor of social communication at the University of Tartu Marju Lauristin said that this has been the case since the 1990s, the Aktuaalne kaamera news program reports in its summary of the outgoing year.

"It did not remain a temporary transitional metaphor but has grown into a relatively persistent difference, our studies suggest," Lauristin said.

She explained that while a part of society feels Estonia's success is also their success, a different part feels that the Estonia that rejoices and celebrates, where people are famous and successful is a different Estonia. Lauristin said it is only logical for a party to emerge that offers the latter a platform. Because the Centre Party had become too Tallinn-centered, the old People's Union-based Conservative People's Party (EKRE) found success in many parts of the country.

"The higher the rejoicing voices rose, the angrier people who felt left out became. This created fertile soil for so-called negative populism," Lauristin said.

"I do not think we are seeing Estonian politics aligning according to EKRE yet. The limits of permissibility have only been expanded slightly, if at all," said Tõnis Saarts.

He added that such an alignment would amount to giving up liberal democracy.

"Liberal democracy has three main components. Firstly – rule of law. Separation of powers – legislative, executive and judicial branches existing separately and exercising supervision over one another. And thirdly, we have universal civil rights and freedoms. What this means is that no one's rights depend on their gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity etc.," Saarts explained.

He feels EKRE support a different model on democracy. A populist version where leaders or a party that has been given a mandate from the people rules and makes decisions based on the principle that other institutions – whether we're talking about the European Union, courts, parliament or president – should not get a say in matters.

"What we mean when we say populism is that there is a political leader whose main message is that of giving power back to the people, pitting the people against a corrupt and alienated establishment. That leader claims to represent the people and give them back their power," Saarts said.

The expert described EKRE's understanding of the people as being made up of ethnic Estonians sporting conservative values. "No populist party sees all residents as the people, some are always excluded, either based on their political convictions, values, race, nationality, sexual orientation," Saarts added.

The political analyst said he feels a new fissure has been created in Estonian society. "I believe that this new split we're seeing in association with the emergence of EKRE – especially after the registered partnership legislation debate in 2014 and the migration crisis in 2015 – is a split between openness and closeness."

This pits supporters of liberal values against those who feel globalization and liberal values are a threat to the survival of the Estonian people.

"Populist parties have different stances on pluralism or diversity in society. Left populist forces usually support pluralism. The populist right usually doesn't and rather sees the people as a homogeneous whole," Saarts explained.

The niche carved out by EKRE is made up of dissatisfied people sporting a conservative outlook who are critical of the system and who have not been represented by Isamaa. In addition to values, regional and economic inequality have also contributed to support for EKRE.

Both Lauristin and Saarts note EKRE's similarity to the Centre Party back when it was headed by Edgar Savisaar.

"Helme very much reminds me of what we've said about Savisaar – that he created a father figure and those who needed one followed him. Helme is doing the exact same thing today – he is shaping a father figure, a brutal and powerful but reliable image of a protector, one who notices and defends the downtrodden," Lauristin described.

"They refer to themselves as conservatives but looking at definitions of such parties in political literature, they are usually characterized as the radical populist right," Saarts said.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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