The rating of Isamaa owes to the party launching its election campaign early and relying on confrontational messages, the Conservative People's Party's (EKRE) newfound popularity in Ida-Viru County constitutes one of the most importance changes on the Estonian party landscape and the Reform Party, Eesti 200 and the Social Democrats have all put in weak showings so far, sociologist Tõnis Stamberg and ERR journalists Anvar Samost and Urmet Kook found.
Results of the September poll commissioned by ERR and carried out by Turu-uuringute AS reveal that while the top four remains unchanged – Reform Party, EKRE, Center Party and Eesti 200 – Isamaa has overtaken the Social Democrat Party (SDE) for fifth place in party ratings.
Early start and Reinsalu behind Isamaa's rise
Asked by Kook whether the rise of Isamaa owes to the trend where the party loses ground in between elections but always restores momentum going in, Stamberg and Samost found that the main reason is the fact Isamaa launched its forceful campaign the earliest.
"Isamaa got off to an early start, and looking at performances by their Tallinn mayoral candidate Urmas Reinsalu and the sharp questions put to the Center-run Tallinn city government, it might be one reason for its rise in the polls," Stamberg said.
Samost agreed, saying that advertising campaigns, including political advertising, would not be pursued if they did not work. "Isamaa has firmly launched its campaign by mid-September. If the Center Party and SDE are also somewhat visible in the capital, the others are not. It is striking how little the Reform Party and EKRE can be seen outside televised ads. But I believe they are concentrating on the week before elections," Samost said. He added that Isamaa has always stood out with highly professional elections campaigns run by people who have done so five or six times.
Samost also mentioned Isamaa's strong list of candidates. "Campaigns are built on candidates and Isamaa has one of the strongest lists here, having also succeeded in bringing out new members," the journalist said and compared it to Eesti 200 in the case of which even journalists cannot recognize candidates.
Stamberg also said that older and more experienced parties have worked harder on lists of candidates than EKRE or Eesti 200. He said that one is hard-pressed to find familiar names even in Tallinn, giving the example of the capital's Lasnamäe borough where parties have the longest lists.
Established parties also seem to know how different people come across in different electoral districts, Stamberg remarked.
EKRE concentrating on broader issues
Kook said that EKRE stands out by concentrating on nationwide problems and value-based topics instead of local issues.
Samost described the approach as typical of EKRE.
Stamberg pointed to the popularity of EKRE climbing to 41 percent in Ida-Viru County, overtaking the Center Party that has traditionally ruled in the county. "The question is whether Center has allowed its voter base to slip away and how?" he said.
Samost said it is too soon to tell as EKRE only have a few well-known candidates in Ida-Viru County, unlike Center and Katri Raik's election list in Narva.
"But as concerns Ida-Viru County and Russians, one of the reasons is the green turn and the other is that the Russian-speaking voter tends to be far more conservative than Estonians," Samost found.
When Kook pointed to former Isamaa leader Mart Laar's comparison of EKRE and the Center Party in the 1990s and 2000s as anti-elite havens for the forlorn, Samost agreed but added that the Center Party lacked an ideology and only proceeded based on pragmatic considerations at the time.
"EKRE have broadened their ideological, value-based spectrum this year, for example, by monopolizing the anti-vaccination sentiment. The party covers a lot of topics others want nothing to do with," he said.
"Especially now that they are in the opposition," Kook offered.
Stamberg pointed out that EKRE have managed to find new topics in which to adopt a confrontational stance and gain new supporters that way. He did not agree with Kook's suggestion that this might eventually cause the party's image to become diluted. "EKRE have a lot of topics well in hand."
Samost compared EKRE's broadening support base to the Reform Party that was a liberal party sporting a narrow constituency under Siim Kallas but became a European people's party that also worked with pensioners and addressed social issues with the rise of Andrus Ansip that translated into a broader voter base.
Samost described as an interesting paradox how analysts have been criticized for failing to accurately forecast where support for EKRE could peak. The analysts were right but only in the moment of their forecast as EKRE has kept broadening its gamut. "Who could have imagined they will go after Russian-speakers or protecting citizens from the police," Samost asked.
Two axes of the Isamaa campaign
Stamberg said that Isamaa's campaign is built on comparison and confrontation with the Center Party.
Samost described it as having two political technological axes: confrontation with the Center Party and the Estonian language.
Contrasting to the strongest player merits attention even if the party doing the contrasting is much weaker than who they're going after," Samost offered. "But I believe this confrontation suits the Center Party just fine, even though that is not what its leaders are saying. They are actually quite pleased with being able to tell voters we are under attack."
The other axis is the Estonian language, Samost suggested. "It is a technological calculation meant to immunize them against EKRE influence, paint Isamaa as being more outspoken on the nationality issue," he said.
No sharp rise expected from Reform
Stamberg's remark that the Reform Party has so far pursued a toothless campaign and is only visible on television was upheld by Samost who added that the prime minister's party only has two messages in Tallinn – free kindergarten places and lump sums for pensioners both of which the journalist described as "rather interesting" coming from a liberal and pro-business party.
Reform needs topics and ideas on which to build voter activity. People with children who attend kindergarten do not make up a major demographic group," Samost found. "I believe Reform will put in a solid result in Tallinn, courtesy of its brand and strong candidates, but I do not see them improving their position too much," he said.
Electricity price hike water to EKRE mill
Asked by Kook how the record price of electricity could affect election results, Stamberg pointed to the Spanish government's promise to compensate citizens for rising prices. "Politician will have to take some kind of a stand," he said.
Samost suggested that ruling parties usually end up paying for price hikes in terms of popularity. He described Reform as having remained passive, while Center has made efforts to come off empathetic and active over the last two weeks.
"Parties that have talked about such price hike scenarios in the past stand to gain the most – mainly EKRE but also some Isamaa politicians," he found. The Social Democrats find themselves in a particularly difficult situation as they have backed policy that has led to this price hike, while they're also expected to protect their voters from its effects, he added.
"But EKRE is clearly the winner here," he emphasized.
Samost also recalled that high electricity bills will reach people immediately before elections in October, and while wealthier people have managed to optimize their power consumption, less fortunate people stand to lose more.
In addition to the electricity price hike, the green turn also affects oil shale industry workers in Ida-Viru County who are mostly Russian-speaking and for whom EKRE has become the most popular political force, Samost said.
SDE has lost its face
Kook said that while SDE was the second choice of Russian-speaking people behind Center for years, support for them among the demographic has fallen to just 3 percent, behind Center, EKRE, Reform and Eesti 200.
"Why has this happened? I get the feeling they've lost the traditional working class voter. Are they left only with young people worried about the green turn and LGBT topics?" Kook asked.
Stamberg answered with a question regarding the Social Democrats' ideas and messages in society. "They have lost their face. I feel it has become blurred, I cannot understand what it is they are doing anymore," he said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski