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The controversial candidate: Mart Helme

The last article in ERR News' presidential candidates series is about Mart Helme. Helme is the choice of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), the chairman of which he has been since 2013. He can be seen as a long-shot candidate, but he shouldn’t be written off completely as he might surprise with significant support later on if the Riigikogu fails to elect the president.

Helme is currently a member of the Riigikogu serving as the deputy chairman of the National Defence Committee. He has dealt with a wide range of activities throughout his career, including lecturing at Tallinn Technical University in International Relations. When gauging his ability to establish influence internationally, there are two aspects worth noting.

First is his time spent as ambassador to Russia in the 1990s. His network is likely outdated, but the experience of ambassador in an important country like Russia is significant.

The second and most important factor for Helme’s ability to make an international impact is his position as chairman of EKRE. As party leader, he has stood by fellow party members, including his son, through a wide range of gaffes, racist remarks, and other offensive statements, some of which were targeted at US soldiers.

For example, when black U.S. servicemen were subject to taunting and insult, an EKRE member responded that they should wear their uniforms while off duty as well to prevent other problems. From a Western perspective, EKRE is attempting to transform Estonia from a modern European nation state into an ethno-state: a concept that was thought to be stamped out for good at the end of South Africa’s Apartheid regime in the mid-1990s.

The party is also skeptical of institutional ties, which could cause allies to question whether Estonia could still be counted on to be a trusted ally and partner. The President of Estonia has little executive power, so in this sense business would continue as usual regarding military spending and other defence and foreign policies.

But one of Estonia’s benefits to its allies is not the actual military output, but the normative aspect. Estonia is an example for all, and in this sense the power of an idea outweighs material contributions. Helme would be branded a far-right radical in the eyes of Western leaders. Diplomatic cables sent back to capitals would not be kind to Mr. Helme. And indeed, Mr. Helme should not expect a congratulatory phone call from President Obama should he win election (though the United States would still follow standard diplomatic protocol and would congratulate him).

This is not only about Mr. Helme, but about what is perceived as constructive in diplomatic relations. As a representative of the country, Estonia’s image would be tarnished as well. Seen now as an innovative, tolerant, successful modern European state, Estonia would instead be categorized as backwards, racist, and so on.

This would seriously affect Estonian efforts to be counted among the Nordic countries. Instead of being lumped with Scandinavia and Finland, it would be linked with Hungary, Poland, and other Eastern European countries taking steps away from democracy and progress. In short, Helme’s election could undo in days what Ilves (and the entire country) took years to build.

What also needs to be noted is what Helme could potentially do as president. His message and agenda as party chairman would most likely be significantly different from his as president. Chances are that to some degree, Helme would distance himself from the ethno-state rhetoric of his party and shore up binding institutional ties. To what extent of course is a key factor that only Helme knows.

Helme’s diplomatic experience, coupled with his charisma, suggests a certain ability that if properly utilized could project to international influence. Whether Helme could successfully use this ability to eventually overcome his EKRE branding, and whether he could eventually gain the trust and respect of Western leaders, is the biggest question surrounding his candidacy.

This article is the last in a six-part series published between Aug. 22 and 27. The other articles in the series are listed below.

Matthew Crandall is an international relations lecturer at Tallinn University. He has agreed to write portraits for all six presidential hopefuls in the 2016 election.

Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn

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