Tõnis Saarts: In anticipation of Reform Party hegemony

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

Comparing the 2007 Bronze Night aftermath to the situation today, conditions for the reestablishment of a Reform Party hegemony in Estonia are considerably less favorable, Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

A quick look at recent party ratings makes it clear that the Reform Party is on top again, with its main competitors – the Center Party, Eesti 200 and the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) – either losing ground or stagnating in the polls.

Considering the squirrels' (Reform mascot – ed.) image of being the best at protecting Estonia from the Kremlin's threats, the party seems to be looking at another period of domination in Estonian politics to span years if not a full decade. A period during which they will win all elections, plot for Estonia a course that suits their agenda and dictate the makeup of coalitions to weaker partners.

This year also marks the passing of 15 years from the Bronze Night that laid the foundation for Reform's first period of dominance that lasted until 2016, which is when Jüri Ratas replaced Edgar Savisaar (at the helm of the Center Party – ed.).

Reform's looming and former status have one thing in common: heightened sense of the Russian threat and the people coming together behind the ruling party. It seems that in situations of heightened security and existential threats, the Reform party is best at making its brand work and leaving others in the dust.

Still, comparing the Bronze Night in 2007 with the situation today, I would suggest the conditions for reestablishing this hegemony are considerably less favorable.

First of all, there is no clear domestic enemy. Secondly, strategies of exclusion can no longer be used to come out on top in coalition games. Thirdly, the structure of social confrontation has changed. Fourthly, the Reform Party's current leader is very different from Andrus Ansip back in 2007.

To ensure a single party's domination of the political landscape, a sharp confrontation and sense of threat need to be created and their adversaries coming to power painted as an existential threat to the recent way of life.

That is precisely the kind of confrontation Reform managed to bring about after the Bronze Night, basically turning the Center Party into a political pariah. But where are the so-called pro-Kremlin forces that the pro-Estonian and pro-Ukrainian Reform could protect us from today? It will take more than a slight credibility advantage over the competition in foreign and defense policy to lay the foundation for a new period of domination.

In other words, a new period of hegemony for Reform will only come about if it can create a credible image of an in-house enemy. Neither Center nor EKRE fit the bill today.

Without a clear domestic enemy image, there are no grounds for keeping particular forces our of coalitions that would allow one to dominate. Let us recall that Reform spent a decade at the helm precisely because it managed to keep the second largest force, Center under Savisaar, sidelined and out of coalitions.

A recent attempt to revitalize the coalition of EKRE, Isamaa and Center, even though it failed, demonstrated that Reform is nowhere near being able to dictate to other parties who they can include in coalitions. And it is likely that choices will remain as open after 2023 Riigikogu elections. Failure to hold the bridge in coalition games effectively keeps one from dominating domestically.

The axes of confrontation in society have also changed compared to 2007. Can we see clear clashes between Estonian-speakers and pro-Putin Russians in Estonia today? We cannot. The picture is far more diverse, mainly inside the Russian-speaking community. What is more, Estonian politics have seen entirely new axes of conflict in recent years, such as the liberalism-conservatism divide.

Finally, while [Prime Minister] Kaja Kallas' forceful and well-argued statements have clearly made her an authority on the international arena in the cataclysmic situation we find ourselves in, her softer and more compromising domestic style would not weather a new era of sharp confrontation, unlike in the case of her predecessor Ansip.

Therefore, Reform's current lead might prove more temporary than it seems. While the rallying effect could help them win the next elections, the competition is sure to pick up momentum once domestic topics start overshadowing security concerns.

However, we do not yet know how the war in Ukraine will end, which is why Reform managing to capitalize on the situation and continuing to reap dividends for decades to come cannot be fully ruled out either.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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