Tõnis Saarts: EKRE rhetoric has changed during crisis

Government press conference on the emergency situation
Government press conference on the emergency situation Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Tallinn University political scientist Tõnis Saarts says that growing popularity of governments and government politicians is commonplace during crises because of the high rate of indeterminacy and provided they do not make serious mistakes early on. People look for a measure of certainty and politicians engaged in managing the crisis offer that to some extent.

Recent ratings in Estonia and elsewhere suggest that the popularity of ruling parties shoots up in crisis conditions. Results of Norstat Eesti AS' poll from Wednesday suggests that the Reform Party has the support of 30 percent of people, Center Party 26.1 percent and the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) 16.6 percent in Estonia. In Finland, the ruling Social Democratic Party has overtaken the Finns Party in the polls.

What is the opposition to do in this situation?

I believe the opposition should be patient. We are busy solving the most urgent problems in this phase of the crisis. We have not yet reached the stage of looking for culprits. We need to keep in mind that it will be a long process, with the current virus crisis to be followed by a recession. There is no guarantee the government will manage the latter as successfully. It is too early to draw conclusions. Let us wait out the year and look at the coalition's rating again then.

It is possible it will be as high or higher still by the year's end. But it could also be lower. We can recall from near history how the popularity of the Reform Party reached over 40 percent during the Bronze Soldier crisis in 2007. But it did not stay there for long and came down after the crisis, with the public rather annoyed with steps the government took next.

Reform's popularity also soared after its relative success managing the 2008-2011 economic crisis. Ratings during a crisis need to be seen as extraordinary. Just as the crisis is out of the ordinary, so are these popularity changes. Should the government be successful in handling the crisis, it could prove to be a turning point for the Center Party that will give it the upper hand over EKRE for good. Let's be honest – it was one of the main goals for Center going into this coalition, to reclaim its rural voters and reinforce its political position.

Will it also be a turning point for the government having to eventually switch to economic concerns and leave public health topics behind? The timing is crucial there.

The phase of addressing economic concerns will be far more critical for the government, not just in Estonia. There are no fundamental ideological differences when it comes to solving the public health crisis, there is consensus in society and no camps proposing radically different solutions on the level of politicians.

However, ideological differences will manifest by the time the economic crisis needs to be addressed. And social groups that will end up with the short stick as a result of choices and decisions will not see it as a necessity, unlike in the health crisis now. They will raise their voices when they see cuts, recession and unemployment shoot up. I do not think the government can escape criticism and accusations. Let us wait out the year and see how Jüri Ratas' government will have handled it by then.

Have Jüri Ratas and EKRE leaders Mart and Martin Helme exhibited usual behavior in the crisis or have there been surprises?

It has been interesting to see how Ratas is going about solving this crisis. He has been masterful at finding compromise, long-term solutions. Sudden crises where split-second decisions are key aren't really his game. But it seems he is settling in and slowly obtaining the necessary skills.

Mart and Martin Helme have supported somewhat more forceful measures. What has baffled me is that they have not used this crisis to blame certain social groups and representatives of different ideologies. For example, to put pressure on liberals or immigrants. Likeminded parties in Europe and America have done so to an extent, while EKRE have completely avoided such rhetoric. It is difficult to say whether the reason is statesmanlike responsibility or some tactical consideration.

Why hasn't Isamaa's rating climbed, still hovering just above the election threshold of 5 percent?

Isamaa is not seen as a key player in the coalition. It's the younger brother. Even though Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu is very much in the spotlight, I'm not sure the credit is going to Isamaa as a party. Many voters see it as Jüri Ratas' (that is to say Center's) government, and some see it as an EKRE government. That is why Center and EKRE are gaining more in the polls. But this crisis is still young, let us wait out the year.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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