Tõnis Saarts: Government conflict inevitable as crisis progresses

Tõnis Saarts. Source: ERR

While it might seem, in the current acute phase of the crisis, that heads of the Center Party and Conservative People's Party (EKRE) understand each other almost telepathically and are working toward the same goal, that might not remain the case as the crisis progresses. The parties sport rather different crisis narratives and diverging visions in terms of the post-crisis Estonia, political scientist Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Tõnis Saarts is an associate professor of Comparative Politics at the School of Governance, Law and Society at Tallinn University.

According to crisis management theory, the creation of narratives constitutes a mandatory phase therein as human nature simply demands meaning is attached to suffering, as well as the search for reasons, culprits and heroes…

Even though members of the government have until recently lacked the time to engage in narrative creation, that time will come a few months from now. Knowing the worldview and past modus operandi of both the Center Party and EKRE, one can make predictions in terms of the narrative either side will try to weave.

Heads of the Center Party will likely prefer to talk about the "evil virus" that upended our prosperous, safe and habitual life and how we managed to overcome it thanks to the vigorous efforts of the government and support from the understanding population. No culprits will be sought either domestically or internationally. But the party will definitely try to hang a laurel wreath on its head for successfully and steadfastly managing the crisis.

EKRE leaders have also refrained from looking for someone to blame so far and demonstrated statesmanlike behavior in the crisis. But keeping an eye on the utterances of the Helme family's great idols Viktor Orban and Donald Trump, there is no guarantee they will maintain an equally subdued line until the end of the year.

It seems rather likely that EKRE's crisis narrative will concentrate on the search for culprits and that the bulk of it will land on left-liberal globalists. The left-liberal project advertising open borders and free movement will be declared a failure in its entirety. The future will belong to sovereign nation states that guard their borders and let as little harmful foreign intelligence as possible seep through.

This brings us to the two parties' diametrically different vision for post-crisis Estonia. The Center Party would like to continue where we left off once the coronavirus emergency situation and the economic crisis it has created are over.

Visions and dreaming big have never been the bread and butter of Jüri Ratas and the core of the Center Party. That is why it is doubtful they will use this crisis to design bold new policies to make Estonia more innovative, sporting a more open economy, more socially equal and greener once it emerges from the other side. Following the riverbed and refraining from introducing provocative change sounds more like Ratas and his team's cup of tea.

The heads of EKRE will rather try to capitalize on the crisis to introduce a new social order. The new post-crisis Estonia would have to be a truly sovereign nation state that guards its borders, boasts zero immigration and implements much tougher domestic control and restrictions.

National conservatism spiked with populism would become the official ideology of this new Estonia. Restricting the freedoms of minorities in the name of the "will of the people" and security would be a common practice.

The executive power could effortlessly steamroll the parliament, president and courts as the party would see no reason to give back the authority it gained in the crisis situation – you never know when the virus might return… While excess openness and lack of discipline would be a threat to us all. In short, all the stops would be pulled out to put Estonia on the path currently walked by Hungary and Poland.

Indeed, why should EKRE miss this historical opportunity? They would be unable to realize half of their ideological vision under normal political circumstances, compared to what they can get away with in a crisis.

That is why a conflict between the Center Party, promoting openness and a return to the status quo, and EKRE, trying to bring about an illiberal nation state project, is inevitable.

Which will prevail and how many concessions Center will have to make in terms of recent social freedoms depends not only on the sides' determination and political skill but also on one very simple metric – the duration of the crisis.

A short and intensive crisis would serve Center's interests, while EKRE would gain from a long and periodically recurring crisis in the conditions of which everyone would gradually get used to closed borders, limited freedoms and the government's dictate. And not only that – would treat it as the new normality.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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