Martin Helme's biggest challenge as the incoming chairman of the national conservatives is to fight for new voters while trying to keep or find potential coalition partners, whereas those two struggles cannot be fought with the same weapons, journalist Toomas Sildam says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.
Mart Helme (70) handing the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) chairmanship over to his son Martin (44) was a long time coming. The only question was when and how.
The Helme family's decision to replace the father with the son 15 months before local elections makes perfect sense. Martin Helme will become the new face of EKRE for local government council elections in the fall of 2021 and Riigikogu elections in 2023.
First, however, EKRE will see whether they are in for a more inclusive management style that would mean, among other things, party board members hearing of decisions to replace ministers from the chairman before hearing it on ERR radio news.
The move also gives the party hope of untangling its stagnant support rating. Turu-uuringute AS polls show that while support for the national conservatives reached 20 percent in March of this year, with the party taking 17 percent of the vote at 2019 Riigikogu elections, it has come back down to 16 percent in June. The number of people saying they would never vote for EKRE remains considerable.
Heads of the party might have expected their rating to soar after being included in the coalition in spring, while their opponents hoped the opposite would happen if people saw EKRE ministers sitting quietly behind the government's table or in the back seats of their comfy cars. Both sides were wrong as support for EKRE was frozen between 15 and 20 percent. Not even the coronavirus crisis and Mart Helme's visible border guard actions or Martin Helme's efforts to find additional finances managed to deliver a considerable hike.
Now, Mart Helme has phrased a political desire or even a prediction for EKRE to have the prime minister's position after the next parliamentary elections. It is difficult to imagine the party winning the election. However, the previous one showed that the winner doesn't always take it all – the Reform Party took a landslide victory but ended up in the opposition after the runner-up Center Party formed the government. Provided EKRE want to do the same in three years' time, they will have to grow their constituency by more than 30 percent.
Where could this growth come from? Largely the Center Party. However, obvious efforts by EKRE to go after Center's voters would send Jüri Ratas' coalition – where Isamaa and Center are sporadically inconvenienced by EKRE as it is – into a coughing fit if not the coronavirus. Keeping its voters and finding new ones is at least as important for Center as it is for EKRE.
There is another, far more urgent question. Let us presume Martin Helme's EKRE manages to find new supporters among young people, women and those with higher education and what is even more important – conservatively-minded Russian-speaking voters – and outperform Center at elections. Would Center agree to play the second fiddle in EKRE's government or would it prefer to marry the Reform Party instead?
This is precisely wherein lies Martin Helme's greatest challenge as the new chair of the national conservatives. While fighting for new voters, using the tricks of a populist protest party, he must also fight to keep or find new potential coalition partners. Words and actions required to find new supporters might not pave the way to coalition partners and vice versa. Those two struggles cannot be fought with the same weapons.
Recent days have produced opinions that Martin Helme's EKRE could be more moderate and levelheaded than Mart's. But it is difficult to imagine the national conservatives filing off their rough edges and Martin Helme leaving the armor of a crusader in the global cultural war rusting on a stand in the corner.
A calmer approach would cost the party some of its recent voters in a situation where finding enough new ones to take their place is far from guaranteed. Therefore, it is difficult to see EKRE dropping its election promise that is also included in the coalition agreement of holding a referendum on whether marriage should be defined as a union between a man and a woman on the level of the constitution. Even when both Center and Isamaa are looking for ways out of it as we speak.
We have seen EKRE demonstrate its ability to dictate topics to its partners. They have often been successful; for example, when contrasting to the UN migration framework. However, they have also shot themselves in the foot by badmouthing the Finnish government or driving foreign labor out of Estonian agriculture.
In many countries, monuments to statesmen accused of racism are being removed. There are discussions whether calling a brand of ice cream "Eskimo" is appropriate or not. EKRE council made a corresponding political statement on Tuesday where it phrased the goal of "containing the spread of Marxist ideology."
Could this be their next big topic? It is possible that many people are finding these trends difficult to understand and rather see it as political correctness taken too far. What could other parties do? Take a step further and hijack EKRE's monopoly by saying, "Hands off Eskimo ice cream!" first.
While such a move would be unexpected, people would understand with the help of a little context. However, it seems that other parties – both those in the coalition and the opposition – have yet to grasp how to exist and act next to EKRE.
Editor: Marcus Turovski