Martin Mölder: Looming elections in the shadow of the war
Russia's war in Ukraine has both short and long-term effects for Estonian politics. They have the potential to change the face of Riigikogu elections and the party-political structure for years to come, Martin Mölder suggests in Vikerraadio's daily comment.
The initial effect the war had on support ratings is the most superficial. Support for the ruling Reform Party started to and continues to grow. Voters tend to look to the prime minister for confident and encouraging leadership in crisis situations that manufacture uncertainty and fear.
The weekly Norstat poll, commissioned by the Institute for Societal Studies, reveals that support for the Reform Party has grown by around 5.5 percent since the start of the war. Support for the Center Party grew in the same ballpark when the first wave of the coronavirus was followed by Estonia's emergency situation two years ago.
But this kind of fear and enthusiasm-based support might easily disappear again. Voters are likely to return to the habitual if the situation causing fear and uncertainty does not escalate.
Long-term attitudes, preconceptions and sympathies will once again become the deciding factors. The ability of politicians and parties to value and develop the country's defensive capacity will also take center stage. Because no matter how the war in Ukraine ends, the security situation on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea has changed for good. It would be best kept in mind by both voters and parties.
If the Reform Party got an extension on its credit during the initial weeks of the war, Center had its debts called in by voters and the general public. The party has lost a little over three points since the start of the war, losing both Estonian and Russian-speaking voters. Their rating is critically low among the former at just 11 percent. It was twice that two years ago.
Russia's war on Ukraine is a challenge for the Center Party on two fronts. Many Estonian voters consider the party's past positions and statements by current members too Russia-friendly. That it has failed to acknowledge the existential danger posed by Russia and Vladimir Putin.
The position itself has been enabled by the party's Russian voters a notable part of whom have lived in the Russian propaganda bubble and are, therefore, incapable of adequately seeing Russia as a threat.
We can add to this Center's volatile in terms of popular support court cases (the embezzlement scandal of former Education Minister Mailis Reps and the Porto Franco real estate saga). The current period could prove critical for Center. Whether they can pull together and rise as a somewhat different and stronger party or whether getting bogged down in their past will wreak havoc on Center's rating and cause it to drop out of the prime ministerial league for good.
The likelihood of a government change before elections is much smaller today than it was a few months ago. Reform and Center need to pursue elections campaigns with one hand and steer Estonia through difficult times in terms of the economy and security with the other. At least one of the two has never been strong in or prioritized defense and security policy, while the other is facing ideological barriers when it comes to interfering in the economy or using loan money. This makes it difficult to solve crises.
A tough time to be in the government is looming, with voters likely to severely punish failure.
A strong alternative for the Reform Party can be found in [non-parliamentary] Eesti 200 in which direction many Reform supporters have been looking for some time. Center's more conservative voter could find refuge with the Conservative People's Party (EKRE). The Social Democratic Party (SDE) and Isamaa also have no better time to shake their torpor.
It may also be the last opportunity for our right-wing conservative parties to put their Eastern and Western European colleagues in their place in terms of their dangerously close relations with Putin and Russia. This particular mine field has all but run out of wiggle room.
It may happen that Estonia's political balance will be decided for a very long time to come at the 2023 [Riigikogu] elections. We will probably see a Riigikogu made up of six parties and two camps. One the one hand, the Reform Party, Eesti 200 and SDE, with EKRE and Isamaa making up the other. Between those two the Center Party that would, in this situation, likely gravitate toward EKRE and Isamaa instead of serving as the fourth wheel to complete the liberal bandwagon. The balance between these two blocks will determine the near future of Estonian politics.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski