Tõnis Saarts: The fading of Isamaa?

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Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The key to the future of the Isamaa party lies in whether Helir-Valdor Seeder's victorious camp can muster enough political magnanimity not to oust the defeated Parempoolsed (Right-wingers) or ignore their board members and try to involve them instead, political scientist Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Isamaa has made its choice in reelecting recent chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder. His camp took a convincing victory at both chairman and board elections. Therefore, it seems no great change is on the horizon and Isamaa will continue as a party teetering on the edge of the [5 percent] election threshold in the polls while having the ability to shape up and put in a strong result come election time.

How has the party survived this situation for so long? What have been their secret weapons? An even more important question is could tension left in the air from the recent general assembly prove fatal for Isamaa this time?

Political science has for a long time been fascinated with the question of why some parties are successful at weathering lows and crises, while others quickly fade away once initial success and euphoria passes. What is the secret to their longevity?

Of course, everything depends on the context and political science can hardly provide a universal formula. However, three key factors have been mentioned, at least in connection with new Eastern European democracies. Firstly, addressing important social rifts and conflict axes that help parties maintain an ideological line voters can understand. Secondly, strong party organization that ensures the party a network of people it can activate before elections and who can then agitate their acquaintances etc. even in the conditions of falling support. This can allow parties to perform better at elections than the polls would suggest. Thirdly, leaders. Charismatic and convincing leaders can help parties weather the worst of times. If a charismatic leader cannot be found, a gallery of well-known and experienced politicians can produce the same effect for a short time. People who know how to organize professional elections campaigns, negotiate good deals at coalition talks etc.

Looking at Isamaa, all three components seem to be in place. Let us start with the core conflicts of Estonian politics, which are the Russian question (what to do with the local Russian minority and attitudes toward Putin's Russia), socioeconomic right-left scale (the question of redistribution) and, finally, the liberal-conservative rift of values (a conflict fueled by the emergence of the Conservative People's Party [EKRE]). Looking at Isamaa under Seeder, there can be no doubt – the party clearly occupies the anti-Russian, right-wing and conservative niche.

Isamaa has also done good work developing its party organization. It needs to be said that the party today owes a lot to former Res Publica members as they launched systematic efforts to that effect toward the start of the century. In any case, Isamaa has a strong nationwide organization today. If local leaders can resist the urge to run in the ranks of election coalitions, Isamaa might put in a better nationwide result than the polls forecast at this fall's local government council elections.

Even though one would be hard put to describe Seeder as a charismatic leader and vote magnet, Isamaa has no shortage of professional and experienced politicians. Even their competitors are forced to admit that Isamaa is capable of organizing well-aimed and substantial campaigns leading up to elections. What is more, Isamaa almost never fails to include its most significant election promises in coalition agreements. This sends their loyal voter base a clear message of the party remaining firmly in the saddle.

However, there is one aspect even established parties cannot conquer and that deflects all of their aforementioned secret weapons – infighting with the potential of erupting as a civil war. The key to the future of the Isamaa lies in whether Helir-Valdor Seeder's victorious camp can muster enough political magnanimity not to oust the defeated Parempoolsed (Right-wingers) or ignore their board members and try to involve them instead. Also, can the Parempoolsed swallow their defeat or will they try to fight new battles after the war is over?

Should a civil war break out (or rather continue) at Isamaa before elections, no matter who wins, the voter will walk away with a clear sense of Isamaa being in trouble and unsure of where it wants to go. The party's local elections candidates will figure as much and rather opt for election coalitions. In short, everything that has kept Isamaa on its feet – organization, clear message and professional politicians – would be lost in the inferno of in-house conflict. Therefore, I urge the winners to be magnanimous and the losers to maintain a sense of strategic wisdom!

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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