Tõnis Saarts: How the national conservatives became liberal democrats

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

Recent statements by the heads of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) paint them as true liberal democrats. Restrictions for people who are not vaccinated are labeled incompatible with rule of law. The government is accused of steamroller politics and hopes placed with independent courts. That said, this seeming about-turn comes as no surprise, Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Many might have been surprised by EKRE clearly siding with anti-vaxxers or joining the ranks of those promoting vaccination freedom. Heads of the party sent rather different messages when they were still in the government, supporting relatively tough lockdown measures and participating in initial vaccine procurements.

Therefore, national conservatives and enemies of liberal democracy have become the fiercest supporters of liberal democracy and the resulting freedoms seemingly overnight. How come?

In truth, there is nothing inexplicable about EKRE's transformation. Anti-vaccination sentiment fits in perfectly with their populist narrative that pits the people against the elite. EKRE's European sister parties and their supporters subscribe to the principles of liberal democracy as far as it suits current politics, and the heads of EKRE were left with little in the way of tactical alternatives in Estonia.

However, let us start by asking what is liberal democracy? The term has been overly mystified recently, signifying for many moral permissibility, unlimited minority rights, obligation to legalize same-sex marriage etc.

In truth, liberal democracy covers three main principles that hardly come across as radical for most people.

First, rule of law – that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law and that governance proceeds from Constitutional tenets. Also, when popular opinion differs on certain matters at different points in time.

Secondly, separation of powers – the executive, judicial and legislative authorities standing separate and working as checks on one another. In other words, a situation where a popular government cannot bend courts to its will based on claims of having the "people's mandate."

Thirdly, universal citizenship – citizens' fundamental rights are not dependent on their race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc. In other words, the rights and freedoms of ethnic and sexual minorities cannot easily be limited based on the will of the majority (for example, through referendums) or government decisions.

Looking at the statements of EKRE leaders in the new situation, they have become true liberal democrats. Restrictions for unvaccinated people are labeled as incompatible with rule of law. The government is accused of steamroller politics in the Riigikogu, with hopes placed on independent courts.

EKRE are busy redefining civil rights and attempting to tie principles of equal treatment to vaccination status. Let us recall the party's attitude towards the aforementioned principles of liberal democracy when it was a member of the government. There were more than a few question marks.

That said, EKRE's approach is hardly surprising. Renowned Dutch populism expert Wouter van der Burg and colleagues published a paper based on Europe-wide polls in the Journal of Democracy recently where they show that supporters of right-wing populist parties tend to favor principles of liberal democracy when their favorite party is in the opposition. This regard for liberal democracy tends to go out the window once their favored political force is part of the government.

In this light, the conduct of EKRE leaders makes perfect sense and seems to be in line with their supporters' expectations.

Scientific literature concerned with the populist right also suggests that while parties like EKRE talk a good game about freedoms and rights, they place them in suitable context. The narrative usually allows that the careless and evil elite is looking to constrain the "people's" rights, while national conservative forces stand up in the "people's" defense.

EKRE's newfound narrative of pitting against one another "the anti-citizenry government" and "free citizens using their heads" is nothing but their traditional anti-elite rhetoric dressed in new clothes. The epithet "liberal" has simply been removed from the elite and the definition of people widened to cover more social groups that just "ethnic Estonians sporting a conservative mindset."

And finally, let us also consider whether EKRE had any other choice in a situation where Varro Vooglaid set about organizing his Freedom Square protest meeting? Whether allowing Vooglaid to become the figurehead of anti-vaccination sentiment and taking a back seat was even conceivable. A choice had to be made, even if the price was being excluded from potential coalitions and hitting a ceiling in the polls.

EKRE conduct reveals that liberal democracy and its core principles do not really matter to the party. If the current situation requires supporting rule of law, civil society and separation of powers, that is what we will do. While these things can just as easily be ignored once in power. This makes EKRE fundamentally different from other parliamentary parties. Or does it?


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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