The recent corporate joining of the opposition Isamaa party has put the organization's reputation on the line, leading members say. Over four hundred members of a non-parliamentary party applied to join Isamaa at the same time, at a time when it has seen an internal challenge on its direction, met with a crackdown on internal dissent and the postponement of leadership elections.
Party chair Helir-Valdor Seeder addressed members via a letter in which he acknowledged that the mass joining of new members which recently took place in Tartu had cast a pall over Isamaa as a whole, adding the Tartu branch party workers will now have to sift through all 400 or so applications to see which ones are sincere.
Seeder also hit out at a social media video which called for the Tartu contingent's joining up, and which offered inducements to do so.
"Such behavior has nothing to do with Isamaa political culture. Alina Berebeljuh (who appeared in the video – ed.) has not joined the party, but her actions cast an unfortunate pall over it in its entirety," Seeder said.
"As a founding member of Isamaa (until 2018 known as IRL – ed.) and party chair, I strongly condemn activities in which information and videos which damage the party's reputation and credibility are disseminated in the press, or on social media, on behalf of the party or using party insignia."
Seeder was referring to an article on the website of daily Eesti Päevaleht (link in Estonian) which carried clips from two Alina Berebeljuh videos.
Berebeljuh is apparently a social media influencer with a few thousand followers on Facebook. They also host a show on a TV channel owned by Madis Sütt, the founder of the non-parliamentary Rahva Tahe party, whose raison d'etre had included an anti-immigration platform and whose corporate joining of Isamaa Monday brought the party 403 new members – or an increase of over 5 percent.
Berebeljuh, 24, had worked as Sütt's campaign manager, while the video inducements to join included giveaway prizes, it is reported – a tactic which Rahva Tahe had itself used to attract members, when it was founded – as well as offering to ferry Rahva Tahe-cum-Isamaa members to the requisite meeting in Tartu.
Isamaa, which has faced an internal challenge already with the emergence of the "Parempoolsed" ("Right wingers") faction – something of a misnomer, in English at least, as its members include representatives of the party's more socially liberal wing – and Seeder recently stated that critics of the party, from within the party itself, could face expulsion.
Seeder said Thursday that he was not aware of the Tartu/Rahva Tahe mass sign-up before it happened, adding that the admission of new members is the responsibility of regional branches.
This means the Tartu branch and its board must re-examine the Rahva Tahe applications and find out which are genuine.
"Only after that will we register the accepted members, whose rights and obligations will then be initiated," Seeder wrote.
The issue will be discussed at the party's next board meeting, itself also a recent issue of contention following a decision to postpone the annual meeting, and with it extend the board members' terms, by one year, ostensibly due to the pandemic and its restrictions.
The move would also mean the board meeting would come after October's local elections and not before.
Pomerants: Could cost us at polls
Marko Pomerants, a board member and former government minister, told ERR Thursday that he feared the influx of the 403 former Rahva Tahe members could affect the party negatively at the polls in October, and may also affect party membership in the opposite direction.
"I think that just as there were newcomers, this has definitely made people want to leave, so I don't know how that will balance out in the end. But it is no help, party staff have to clear it all up and maybe it will transpire that payday time comes in the elections in autumn," Pomerants, who is chair of the party's Lääne-Viru County branch, said.
Pomerants agreed with Seeder's estimation that the episode put the party in a poor light, noting that its leaders will meet Tuesday, while the Tartu branch should also meet next week to discuss what happened.
At the same time, he remained optimistic about the long-term prognosis.
"In the long run, we've gone through such things before, yet Isamaa still exists. As the Chinese say about the French Revolution, it is still a little too early to draw any conclusions, so I think that in relation to this episode too, Isamaa is stronger than thus kind of upheaval," he said.
"If one thing remains stable in Estonia, it is that Isamaa's rating remains around 5.6 percent, be it in coalition or opposition," he added, referring to the party's regular support level according to the three main ratings compilers.
Five percent is the proportion of votes needed to gain council seats under Estonia's modified d'Hondt system of proportional representation – in other words, if Isamaa polled at below that mark in one particular municipality, it would not win seats.
At the same time, while it was in coalition with Center and EKRE, April 2019 – January this year, and before that with Center and SDE from November 2016 (and even before that, with Reform and SDE), Isamaa had some of the choicest ministries to its name, notably foreign, defense and also the Ministry of Justice (Urmas Reinsalu, Jüri Luik and Raivo Aeg, in the last administration).
Isamaa has one MEP at present, former defence forces chief, Riho Terras.
"By the middle or end of next week, we'll be wiser," Pomerants added.
Metsoja: Need to investigate what went on
Another party grandee, Andres Metsoja, concurred about the Rahva Tahe case.
Metsoja is head of the Pärnu Isamaa branch, and told ERR Thursday that the party must get to the bottom of what happened.
He said: "It is sad that the members of the party have not drawn enough conclusions from this," referring to an incident in Pärnu where people with criminal records had attempted to join the party.
"Obviously, this situation needs to be discussed at presidency level. I understand that, in fact, these people have not yet become members of the party. The allegations, which are circulating in the media definitely need to be clarified. But I must stress that I more-or-less occupy the same information space as do the public."
"There is always a desire to start looking for the culprits and punish them. But first of all, I think it still needs to be made clear what has really happened," he went on, noting that it might have a bearing on the issue of the postponed board meeting and elections to party leadership.
Helir-Valdor Seeder became Isamaa leader in May 2017, replacing Margus Tsahkna, who left the party and joined the newly-founded Eesti 200 in 2018.
Seeder was deputy Riigikogu speaker from spring 2019 until early on this year.
Editor: Andrew Whyte