Saarts: Cordon sanitaire sees populists kept from power in many countries

Toomas Sildam's interview with Tõnis Saarts.
Toomas Sildam's interview with Tõnis Saarts.

Center was looking to avoid ruling at the mercy of the Reform Party. Cordon sanitaire sees populists kept out of power in many countries. The deprived have risen up. The elite in Estonia would do well to fear presidential elections. Associate professor of comparative politics at Tallinn University, political scientist Tõnis Saarts talks about politics and the art of playing it.

Is Marju Lauristin too optimistic in believing that Trumpism is past its heyday and that Donald Trump's defeat at U.S. presidential elections will heal the air in America and the world?

To some extent. The conflicts that gave rise to Trumpism and right-wing populism in general are still there.

They are found first and foremost in the neoliberal globalization model that we have been practicing in the West for the past 40 years – market economy, free movement, liberal values, diversification of societies…

While all of that sounds good to a lot of people, globalization comes with its own dark side. Many are left feeling as though they've lost and that frustration is not going anywhere. Trump may be on his way out but these conflicts remain.

Therefore, we cannot say that Trump's defeat is a blow to populists everywhere?

It could be temporarily.

But for those fundamental conflicts… On the one side, we have people who feel they have not been on the winning side in globalization, for whom social development is happening too quickly and who cannot understand how traditional values, such as clear gender roles and the white working man being respected, can change overnight. They are not going along with changes and are often labeled simpletons who cannot understand what is happening by the mainstream media. This creates frustration.

Writer Olev Remsu says that Trump's defeat will make sure the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) will soon be little more than a bad memory. Is that a literary image or a realistic view of politics?

It is rather a literary perspective. The phenomenon of EKRE is built on dissatisfaction the roots of which have not disappeared. Looking at EKRE from an organizational point of view and in terms of its leaders, it is difficult for me to believe they are on their way out.

While processes outside of Estonia – primarily in America – might subtract from EKRE's success…

Clip its wings?

… clip its wings. Looking at the core conflicts the party represents, I'm having a hard time believing they will just disappear.

To what extent can we say that EKRE leaders are defending themselves and seeing Trump losing to Biden as a personal loss in refusing to acknowledge the defeat?

How EKRE feels about America and Donald Trump – it is no secret they have been his fans and Trump losing the election feels very personal. Hence the reaction where one appears on a talk show and says the things father and son Helme (EKRE chairman Martin Helme and outgoing Minister of the Interior Mart Helme – ed.) said.

Had Jüri Ratas (Center) asked you last spring, after losing the Riigikogu elections, whether to aim for a government with the Reform Party or with EKRE and Isamaa or whether to go to the opposition instead, what would you have told him?

That would have been a difficult recommendation to give. Yes, a coalition with the Reform Party would have been the pragmatic choice…

Stable and calm.

At the same time, the Center Party was very disappointed with its election result at the time. Their desire to remain in power and keep the prime minister's office was great. That is why seeking a coalition with Reform would have been, shall we say, a bitter bill to swallow.

The alliance Center made instead [with EKRE and Isamaa] was aimed at two additional goals.

The first was strategic – to avoid a situation that would see the Reform Party return as the political party that forms all future governments and, because everyone would rule out working with EKRE, restore its position of kingmaker and divide and conquer policy that was the status quo in Estonia for 17 years before Ratas took power [in the fall of 2016].

That is why Center nipped efforts to render EKRE unfit for government in the bud.

The second reason, I believe, is that Center was very concerned to see EKRE muscling in on their territory, less in terms of Russian and more as concerned rural area voters at the time. There was this belief that including EKRE in the coalition would help Center take back their rural voters by being successful while EKRE would prove their incompetence when making particular decisions.

Center seems to have drawn the short stick here as they have not managed to bring back rural voters.

The latter have not returned yet.

It is interesting, looking at the top three, that ratings have been very stable.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

We could even say they have been frozen

Indeed. The Center Party has lost some Russian votes and has not managed to win over rural area voters, which they were hoping to do in 2019.

They were prepared for a coalition with EKRE to be very difficult and for the former not to change its colors at least initially. They counted on that risk. However, the key factor in the birth of this coalition was to keep Reform from becoming the kingmaker again and forming all future coalitions, only allowing Center to rule at its mercy.

If we were to ask whether the coalition is kept together by the desire to rule or defiance in the face of the Reform Party, is it more the latter?

It's both. The Center Party that spent a long time in the opposition wants to make up for it and prove itself as a government force. And after spending such a long time in the opposition and lacking recent experience ruling, it is dangerous to marry a more popular, more experienced partner who might eclipse you on your own stage. That consideration remains valid today.

It makes no strategic sense for Center to work with the popular and forceful Reform Party. At least not yet.

If a year and a half ago, the coalition could be described as "the Center Party and the two dwarves," perhaps the roles have been switched now to leave us with "EKRE and the two addicts"?

Someone looking at the Estonian media without knowledge of who make up the government might indeed be left with the impression that EKRE is the prime minister's party. The national conservatives have clearly dictated the government's agenda, at least for the media.

While we cannot say that they have succeeded on a more fundamental level. The coronavirus crisis, pension policy, labor market policy and frankly all actual policies have seen more important choices and reforms pursued by Center and Isamaa.

But EKRE is clearly dominating in the media.

You once quoted Irish political scientist Peter Mair in that parties are no longer in power in modern democracies but rather close to it. I would ask – who is in power in that case?

To what extent can political parties affect political processes in the globalizing world? Their levers are far more modest than 30-40 years ago when the economy was much less global.

Is it what you suggested then that EKRE is the only party in Estonia to have phrased a narrative for the future, that true Estonians are rising up to restore their true nation state and cast off the shackles of liberalism and political correctness imposed on them by the West? Is it irony or a description of the actual situation?

It is more the latter, perhaps presented in a slightly poetic way.

Let us look at EKRE messages. That we are the true Estonians and sport mostly conservative views. What are these true Estonians doing? They are restoring the nation state, free from influence from Brussels or other countries, that is proudly independent, does what it wishes, reinforces its national interests, is independent from anyone else and affirms that these true Estonians are the masters in their own land.

Where this is leading us is not the liberal Western world but rather a rediscovered national conservative Eastern Europe that is defiant toward the West's liberal values.

Does this tie into your criticism that Center and Reform are losing control over defining core conflicts in society, come off as ideologically confused and unable to phrase a new future narrative for Estonia? It is difficult to do when one is part of a controversial coalition and the other is in the opposition where precious little depends on it.

Yes, the respective positions of Center and Reform aren't ideal in terms of phrasing that narrative. On the other hand, it seems they have not really attempted to tie those loose ends together…

A democratic country's politics inevitably includes controversy and conflict and every country aligns according to the axes of a core conflict, which in Estonia is the nationality issue or the Russian issue in the broadest sense. The Reform Party and Center Party dominated that playing field for a decade [until 2016].

We do not have a Russian conflict today, at least not in the public eye.

The axis of the conflict has moved.

The core conflict is increasingly – whereas I would not dare say that the nationality conflict has disappeared altogether – dictated by EKRE. It is the conflict between national reticence and openness, between conservatism and liberalism… A question of values and whether Estonia should be an introspective, xenophobic nation state or an open and tolerant country.

This conflict clearly divides people inside Center and Reform. The parties are facing a dilemma and find it difficult to pick a clear side in the conflict.

Because they are made up of both liberals and conservatives.

Supporters of both openness and reticence.

Do you know what are the common values of the coalition between Center, EKRE and Isamaa?


Or is the question too idealistic to apply to the current government?

I believe they would all sign the preamble of the Constitution as concerns the survival of the Estonian language and culture. But as far as the rest…

Yes, I'm stumped. It is a very problematic coalition and one not based on common values. Other factors were involved in its creation.

You have said that if the two major parties fail to present their topics as core social conflicts in the coming years, the 2020s will be an EKRE decade in Estonia. How could that be if Center and Reform are sure to take over half the vote between them?

They very well might. But if EKRE succeeds in establishing the core conflict as tied to its values and making it the main topic of politics in Estonia, parties that dictate the axes of the main conflict start to dominate over time.

But EKRE is also finding it difficult. They have been in power for a year and a half, while their rating has not improved. They must find new voter groups to continue to grow. Provided they play their cards right and their adversaries fail, they can break out of this rut, it is realistic.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Whose supporters could they go after? Their rating has remained between 15 and 18 percent since last spring, meaning that 85 or 82 percent of voters in Estonia feel differently.

I can see two paths, while I do not know whether they will opt for them.

One, that EKRE already seems to be going after, concerns Russian votes. The core of the Russian-speaking electorate and especially its elderly base sport conservative values.

There is discordance today where we have liberal, pro-European and younger Center Party politicians and where the representatives of the party's Russian wing MEP Yana Toom and Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart are also relatively liberal. The question now is whether EKRE can capitalize on that discordance and sell itself to the Russian voter by shaking off the stigma of radical Estonian nationalism that has so far characterized it in the eyes of the voter group.

Herein lies a dilemma for ERKE of whether the Russians are friends or enemies. And it is not one easily put to bed because we know its current supporters include those sporting strong anti-Russian and Estonian nationalist sentiment. The Helmes need to keep this in mind if they want to move closer to the Russian community.

Now for the second path… Looking at right-wing populist parties in Eastern Europe, for example, Truth and Justice (PiS) in Poland, what really made them successful? They became a left-wing party in socioeconomic terms, offering Polish families more generous child benefits than previous liberal governments. People, especially rural area residents, felt for the first time that their country cares about them and offers them something – so they voted for PiS in return.

What I'm getting at is that EKRE has another dilemma to solve in terms of whether they want to be on the socioeconomic right wing and please SMEs through low taxes, which would mean a less generous welfare system, or whether they want to very strongly cater to the part of the population known as the "other Estonia." The latter are not as prosperous, feel less secure on the labor market and would see EKRE offer them something other parties have not.

It would constitute a change of direction as we have not seen such solutions from EKRE so far. On the contrary, thinking about strawberry growers and foreign labor, because the slogan "No to Ukrainian foreign labor" resonates with many of their voters; or when considering agricultural support that was left out of next year's state budget.

I completely agree. Even though EKRE does not see strawberry growers and small entrepreneurs as their core voters.

But it baffles me that EKRE have completely forgotten about regional inequality after emphasizing it in the opposition and their 2019 elections campaign. I claim that if EKRE can successfully engage the "other Estonia" in the socioeconomic dimension and do something that is of symbolic value there, other parties would be hard-pressed to challenge it. It could be a strategy for breaking out of stagnation for the party.

However, it would not be an easy task as the party's leaders largely sport right-wing views.

How to define EKRE today? Does it belong to the radical right, is it national-conservative or simply extreme populist?

(Sighs) I would define EKRE as a radical right-wing populist party.

The changes the party is looking to introduce in terms of society's values are radical.

Populism is built on the understanding that there is a united people and a corrupt, guileful elite that has stolen the power from the people and that the aim of populists is to give it back.

But why right-wing?

More tolerant and liberal values, accepting a more diverse society is usually associated with the political left. While xenophobia and fears are usually associated with the right.

Looking at EKRE's economic program… it is centrist, while it includes so many controversies to make it hard to define. Statements by father and son Helme usually paint them as socioeconomic right-wingers.

Mart Kadastik recently talked about how some Western sociologists find that the populists should not be warded off as talking to them is not the same as talking like them. But Kadastik also points out that scientists who say that isolating radicals from power is the ultimate test of democracy number more. Which side do you lean toward?

The French term cordon sanitaire applies to a lot of populist parties in Western Europe and means keeping them from ruling. It is a silent agreement between the old political parties not to let them in.

We saw the same thing after European Parliament elections when the so-called old-timers blocked populists from taking key positions in committees.

Yes, cordon sanitaire has been effective in many countries, while it also has a price.

Ignoring a part of society, their values, one runs the risk of finding themselves in a situation where the popularity of such parties keeps growing to force one to address their problems regardless of whether they have been kept out of the government. We can see that happening when it comes to immigration where pressure from the populist right has rendered mainstream parties much more cautious than they were 20 years ago.

Any time you snub someone, you must keep in mind that the level of frustration in society could grow as a result because the problems raised by the part of society that feels left out will not simply go away. You will have to come to them eventually. And those problems are that a part of people feel as though they've lost in the neoliberal globalization model, they do not feel they are winners.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Former chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SDE) Jevgeni Ossinovski – who helped Center come to power together with Isamaa and push Reform into the opposition four years ago – said that EKRE are merely doing what they have promised to do and cannot be held morally responsible in that sense, while PM Jüri Ratas (Center) can be accused of failing to bring EKRE down from the barricades and instead barricading himself with the national conservatives against the rest of society. Is that an apt description?

I believe so.

As mentioned, the Center Party's choices were highly pragmatic when putting together this coalition. Every choice has a price and the party understands that it has not managed to improve integration in society in terms of development and broader social trends.

A coherent society…

We have not come to a coherent society and fissures run deeper than before.

The relevant question here is that had EKRE been left in the opposition, would these social fissures be less pronounced today? I think not.

The core conflicts associated with the rise of EKRE – tied to values and globalization – will remain whether we like it or not. They cannot be erased or solved overnight. And that means such parties will also remain. The question is how deep we allow these conflicts and controversy to run.

Actress Elisabet Reinsalu recently wrote: "I understand there are people in Estonia who have felt worthless for almost all of our 30 years of independence and now feel it is time to reclaim their dignity."

I absolutely agree. The quote does a good job of summing up what I was talking about previously. Estonia has large social groups that feel they are not part of the country's success story. Many of them used to vote for the Center Party and People's Union, while they are behind EKRE today.

It ties into our post-communist transition, while it has now been complemented by the global winners versus losers polemic.

You have used the expression "society beyond representation."

Yes, some social groups – that do not perceive themselves as part of a successful Estonia or the growing successful globalizing world – feel that ruling politicians sporting a more cosmopolitan and liberal background, middle-class people do not understand the problems of that part of society.

They have risen up. And this has created a new situation, new and very sharp conflicts. Solutions are hard to find here. Because problems that are also being addressed in Estonia, such as the marriage referendum issue, are identity conflicts. And the only thing we know to do about them today is play a zero-sum game of you win, I lose.

The deprived tend to support political forces that position themselves as an alternative, as something new and that very strongly criticize the recent elite. When will EKRE become part of the elite and the very deep state its leaders claim to be battling?

That is the tragedy of populist parties – if we define populism as a never-ending struggle between the virtuous people and the corrupt elite – and the running aground of populist ideology, becoming the elite.

However, it is possible to take populist projects beyond that point in Eastern Europe, Hungary, for instance, by finding foreign enemies and playing your cards right. It has been achieved by Fidesz and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and is being attempted by other representatives of the populist right in Europe. Based on there being such a thing as a pure Estonian or Hungarian nation confronted by Brussels eurocrats, George Soros, liberals who all want to bring in masses of immigrants, refugees etc.

Who could serve as the foreign enemies of Estonian populists?

Those I have already listed. The liberal Brussels establishment that they claim is looking to destroy the Estonian nation, culture and traditions. That is the outside enemy.

And so, an endless conflict is programmed into the current coalition because while EKRE want to see in Brussels a foreign enemy, Prime Minister Ratas and Isamaa are saying that Brussels is our friend.

That conflict has been evident from the first in the fact that we have a Euroskeptical party in EKRE and two pro-European parties in the Center Party and Isamaa that make up the government. The former realized early on that very striking anti-European rhetoric would not fly and that waging a guerilla war against the EU in the government would not be sensible. They tried that at the beginning when Minister of Finance Martin Helme sought to block fiscal policy decisions on the European level and burned his fingers.

But that does not mean their EU-critical rhetoric has disappeared. It remains an important part of their program.

However, EKRE also have a domestic enemy who they find just as alive and even more dangerous.


Martin Helme recently said it on the "Esimene stuudio" [political talk show on ETV] when he suggested that there is a struggle between good and evil, light and darkness in our society and that cosmopolitan liberals are representing the dark side. They are the enemy.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Can you understand why heads of EKRE aren't even trying to be civil?

It is their style, from the first, to set themselves in contrast to how we have pursued policy in Estonia and the values we have prioritized. They intentionally contrast to all of it, trying to demonstrate there are alternative paths and options.

You were quite harsh when you wrote that governments are not overthrown for persecuting homosexual people in Eastern Europe to which Estonia firmly belongs in terms of the mentality of its people, provided anyone still has any doubts about that. What would have happened to the interior minister of a Western European country after suggesting they are "indeed unfriendly" toward LGBT people?

I suspect the minister would have been forced to resign, at least if the statement were close to what was said by Mart Helme [when serving as interior minister].

There have been a number of studies looking at support for same-sex marriage, attitudes toward sexual minorities, and a clear difference emerges between Western and Eastern Europe. If we place the results of these studies on a map of Europe, the divide coincides perfectly with Cold War borders, with the imaginary Berlin Wall. That version of the Berlin Wall still stands in Europe.

I do not want to blame Eastern European countries and peoples. It is a result of our history and the fact we did not have a left-liberal revolution or a shift in values in 1968 that sent Western Europe in a much more liberal direction starting in the 1970s.

Looking at the attitudes of people in Eastern Europe when it comes to minorities and immigration, they are far more conservative than they are in the west.

This also applies to Estonia, even though ours is not the most conservative society. Nevertheless, our values are considerably more compatible with Eastern Europe than its western counterpart.

Why do you believe that presidential elections next summer and local government council elections in fall might bring down the coalition of Center, Isamaa and EKRE?

We have at times underestimated the political effect of presidential elections. However, almost all of them have resulted in a dramatic shift this millennium.

Arnold Rüütel elected president [in 2001] saw the triumvirate coalition of Mart Laar fall. The frustration that followed indirectly helped Res Publica come to power later.

In 2006, when the choice was between Rüütel and Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the People's Union became embroiled in corruption scandals and faded away after backing Rüütel. Today, we can see the People's Union having returned in EKRE and in a different way, but their core voters, especially in rural areas, have remained the same.

There was little controversy when Ilves was elected for a second term in 2011.

And now we come to 2016 – how did Center's coup begin? When Jüri Ratas' camp claimed that [then chairman] Edgar Savisaar pulled the rug out from under Mailis Reps (Center). (By failing to back her for president in the Electoral College – ed.) That was the catalyst for events that followed very quickly. And it was an earthquake's equivalent in Estonian domestic politics when the Reform Party fell and Center became a part of the government [in November 2016]. It was the most important shift of the decade.

Almost all presidential elections have ended in dramatic shifts in domestic policy. Hence my warning – be wary of presidential elections, Estonian elite.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR


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