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Tõnis Saarts: The running total of the ekrefication of Estonia

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

In order to make its way back into the government, the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) would have to take at least 30 percent of the vote at the next Riigikogu elections to make itself indispensable. Can the party consider this situation a victory? Rather, it is a defeat, Tõnis Saarts says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

The new year is not off to a great start for conservatives and especially radical conservatives. Trump supporters attacking the Capitol discredited the conservative agenda worldwide, while a sudden change of government saw EKRE sidelined in Estonia.

Without going into detail regarding these events, I am interested in another matter. What did the conservatives achieve? Then deputy head of EKRE Martin Helme promised to ekrefy Estonian politics and society on election night in March of 2019. How far did the project get during the party's more than 18 months in power?

I believe that the situation today is best described as: "We won battles but lost the war."

The unwritten rules of coalition governments

Yes, it is possible to claim that such an extensive endeavor cannot be completed in a year and a half. By taking things too far catering to more radical supporters, the party missed several strategic possibilities that could otherwise have promoted its cause.

For a radical party to bring about a fundamental turn in a society like Estonia, certain conditions need to be met. What are they?

To start, one needs a considerable support base in society, while making allies among the elite is no less important. In other words, one should woo a considerable part of mainstream media, entrepreneurs, civil society and intellectuals. It would be good if representatives of other parties would agree that the party is on the right track despite its radical approach.

Looking at public support for EKRE, it fell rather than grew during their time in the government. Results of attempts to gain a foothold among the elite were also modest to say the least.

Yes, EKRE can count Isamaa and church circles among its allies, while I seriously doubt their position in Estonian society and politics is substantial enough to tip the scales in EKRE's favor in the near future.

Secondly, radical parties must demonstrate their suitability as coalition partners in order to promote their agenda. In other words, make other parties feel: "While their ideas might be crazy, we can work with them." While recent coalition partners have commended EKRE ministers for certain professional achievements, more broadly speaking, the national conservatives violated almost every unwritten rule in the book of coalition governments.

They are:

  1. Do not constantly bring your coalition partners face to face with value dilemmas and leave their credibility in the eyes of the public in a constant state of uncertainty – it will backfire eventually.
  2. Estonia has a single prime minister – do not try to encroach upon their territory as a junior partner – become worthy of the office first.
  3. It is not suitable for certain ministers to constantly lecture others on how they must do things in their administrative area. In summary, if one side to a coalition government only says "me, me, me" and only very seldom "us," that party is not ready to be part of a coalition.

It seems that all parliamentary parties kept a close eye on how EKRE conducted themselves in the recent coalition and I believe we can safely say that their conclusion was that a coalition with the Helmes can only be a last resort.

In other words, to make its way back into the government, the Conservative People's Party would have to take at least 30 percent of the vote at the next Riigikogu elections to make itself indispensable. Can the party consider this situation a victory? Rather, it is a defeat.

What went well?

To close, we should also talk about where the project of ekrefication succeeded. The party was successful at introducing its core conflict (liberalism vs conservatism) into Estonian politics and forcing competitors to dance to the same tune.

A notable achievement in itself. Additionally, EKRE have contributed to the political language. Terms like "deep state," "cultural Marxists," and "gay totalitarians" have become commonplace. We know that language affects mentality and vice versa. EKRE also managed to move the boundary of what is considered acceptable and unacceptable in Estonian politics.

And yet, even these achievements were undermined by taking things too far with the marriage referendum. The party has rendered blunt what would otherwise have been an important instrument with which to promote its agenda in the future. The word "referendum" will cause serious fits of allergy among the Estonian political elite for a least a few election cycles.

Taking previous achievements too far causing them to lose their effect has become a part of EKRE's modus operandi. The project of Estonia's ekrefication will remain grounded for as long as its leaders have not mastered the art of maintaining balance and making allies.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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