Kalle Muuli: The struggle for the Russian vote

Kalle Muuli.
Kalle Muuli. Source: Kadri Põlendik

The conflict between the Center Party and the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) that has a little prematurely become known as a government crisis smells strongly of looming elections. The fight is over Russian votes, which might lead to a real crisis one day," former Isamaa Riigikogu member Kalle Muuli writes.

There were journalists last spring who said that Jüri Ratas' second government wouldn't last six months. First, we were told that there would be a new government by late August and then by late September. Once these dates came and went, the same journalists started saying how this government could even last the full four years, until the next Riigikogu elections, which would be unprecedented in Estonia.

What these wall-to-wall forecasts were based on remained wholly unclear. There was talk of the prime minister's uncontrollable thirst for power, attempts to cling to his position at all costs or other irrational phenomena that no serious political observer can take seriously.

The stability of any government can usually be forecast quite accurately based on well-known criteria. They are the number of parties in the parliament, the number of parties that form the government and a few other things used to create political forecasts since time immemorial.

These criteria suggest that Ratas' second government is in no way special or extreme and is rather quite common. Five parties in the Riigikogu, three in the government, with the latter made up of two experienced partners and a relatively inexperienced third, strong competition for the same voters etc. All of it is enough to conclude that the government will likely last for two or three years, as is common for coalitions in Estonia.

In addition to the makeup of the parliament and government, we need to look at when the next elections will take place – whether local, European Parliament or presidential ones – because elections always create tensions in parties. If during elections campaigning one needs to demonstrate to voters where one stands apart from the others, differences need to be cast aside and common elements sought immediately after elections if there is to be any hope of forming a government.

That is why voters are often disappointed with their choice after elections – had we known our party would agree to be a part of such a coalition, we would never have voted for you!

Alas, coalition governments cannot be helped in Estonia. It is impossible to run the country any other way and a coalition agreement needs to be signed with parties that one described as wholly unfit to rule in the recent campaign.

Things are the other way around when elections are looming – ruling parties are increasingly repulsed by one another as elections campaigns need contrast and for differences to be emphasized so voters would find it easier to choose. That is why the most difficult time for the government will be next fall when it is faced with two consecutive elections. Local government council elections especially will be a touchstone as the interests of EKRE and Center, as well as those of EKRE and Isamaa are sure to clash.

The current conflict between the Center Party and the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) that has a little prematurely become known as a government crisis also smells strongly of looming elections. The fight is over Russian votes, which might lead to a real crisis one day.

Mart Helme's interview to Deutsche Welle in Russian has been mentioned for translation issues and other unimportant aspects, while the most important political implication has been virtually ignored. Why did the interior minister decide to give an interview on sensitive topics that have nothing to do with his line of work, as well as why he agreed to do it in a foreign language that is not his strong suit?

The answer is simple: Mart Helme was going after Russian votes. The votes of people Center has always regarded as their mainstay. EKRE wanted to do and did what Center has been doing for years – they told Russians a different story in Russian than is told to Estonians in the official language.

That is the reason for Center's reaction which has been more painful than usual. One of the first to respond was Center's Narva region chief, MEP Yana Toom. She immediately realized that EKRE was muscling in on her territory and referred to his behavior as sick on her Facebook wall the same evening.

Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart also offered severe criticism. Both are interested in the gay topic not overshadowing local issues and the marriage referendum not taking place during local elections.

It is also worth noting that Helme's interview was mainly on eastern policy and important Russian politicians it concerns – Vladimir Putin, Alexey Navalny et al. Homosexuals were brought in by the way, while Helme's uncontrollable and random choice of words gave Center an opening to attack.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas was likely further annoyed by the fact the interview was given to an international media channel and that he would have to smooth over Helme's words not just in Estonia but also abroad.

Still, Ratas' sharper and more rigid than usual position is probably caused by the fact that looming elections and the marriage referendum are leaving him with increasingly little leeway between EKRE and his Russian-speaking fellow Centrists.

EKRE were obviously not expecting Center to react so painfully. That said, I do not believe they will be wiser or more modest next time. Everyone needs votes. Everyone's votes – including heterosexuals, homosexuals, Estonians and Russians.

As long as the press continues to concentrate on nuances in translation and amplifying brawling instead of explaining to the people the true motives of politicians and parties, EKRE rhetoric will not change. Gay people and the local Russian minority are sadly but pawns in this political game of chess.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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