Tõnis Saarts: EKRE political communication master class

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

The Conservative People's Party (EKRE) using the NETS protests to boost its support rating serves as a textbook example.

The question now is whether the party will be able to integrate this new and diverse group of supporters it has gained in the recent wave of dissatisfaction in Estonia, Tõnis Saarts says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Recent polls have seen support for the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) climb to record highs, taking them past the Center Party and the magical 20 percent threshold. While the decade before last saw many wonder at the success of the Reform Party in terms of finding new supporters, outwitting competitors and always landing on its feet, EKRE are that force today.

It is as if the master class of political technological capacity has moved from the office of Rain Rosimannus to that of the Helme family. But has it?

Everyone's choice

EKRE boosting their rating during the recent Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act (NETS) protests was nothing short of a textbook example of how it's done.

The first thing a communicator worth their salt needs to do is gauge social moods and capitalize on any nascent dissatisfaction. That is precisely what EKRE did. Everyone is getting fed up with restrictions and the coronavirus crisis. But no other party dared voice that position as clearly.

Next, you need to find a problem, blow it out of proportion and tie it to a universally comprehensible image or symbol.

The term "police state" and TV coverage of the police attempting to disperse protesters and restore order served this purpose brilliantly. This set the stage in the minds of people who rather do not support the current government and instructed them in terms of what and who they needed to fight.

Stage three is heroically solving a problem you have yourself defined and taking credit. As we know, coalition parties were forced to look for a compromise with the opposition leader in the end. A few provisions concerning use of force by the police that were open to interpretation were amended. The Helmes left the negotiating table proud and victorious.

However, EKRE's shrewdness was not limited to the communication side of things. They also made masterful use of other political tricks that are the mainstay of party politics. Successful parties always play the field and make it look like they stand with the people and could represent people of various backgrounds.

By sending different signals, EKRE have made it look like they could be the choice of both anti-vaxxers and people who support vaccination, people pro and against tougher restrictions, both those who fear a police state and those who long for an iron fist etc.

Skillful parties make sure to exploit their opponents' every mistake and oversight. These tactics have been one of the more important cornerstones of EKRE's success so far. At the same time, the Reform Party's prime minister has managed to send relatively hectic messages in the crisis. Toting freedoms and relaxed restrictions in February was followed by the need for tougher measures in March, while more than a few Reformists are talking about the need to reopen society again in April.

The ruling party not knowing what it wants is a surefire way to leave people looking to the opposition that is at least providing more concrete messages – if only warnings against "the danger of a police state."

Reform's coalition partner the Center Party seems to have forgotten about a core voter group altogether. This makes it little wonder EKRE are going after the Russian voter as every potential advantage needs to be seized.

Other opposition parties have decided to recuse themselves and long since stopped trying to address the public on what people care about today. With all due respect, the pension reform is not the number one topic this spring.

A marathon

Despite EKRE's political technological mastery, the question of whether these newfound voters can be tied to the party in the long run remains.

Party politics is like a marathon, with elections serving as waystages. While isolated spurts make for good spectacles and can merit spontaneous ovations, the race will go to those who can maintain the pace and picked a sustainable strategy from the first.

A party's endurance is guaranteed by their ideology, while a sustainable strategy stands for the art of selling your views to as many voter groups as possible by forming a long-term and trusting relationship.

Will EKRE be able to integrate this new and diverse group of supporters it has gained in the recent wave of dissatisfaction? Connect them to its conservative media ecosystem? Convince them that liberal democracy and the European Union are of the devil? And make them believe that stopping immigration and homosexuality is the number one challenge Estonia faces?

The Reform Party managed to sell its national liberal set of ideas to a much broader spectrum of voter groups than EKRE has managed to woo so far by promoting its brand of conservatism. Perhaps this is one area where EKRE could learn from other parties, as opposed to it being the other way around.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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