Ex-Free Party leader: Riigikogu harder nut to crack for newcomers nowadays

Former Free Party leader Andres Herkel (pictured in 2020).
Former Free Party leader Andres Herkel (pictured in 2020). Source: Kairit Leibold / ERR

Andres Herkel, a former leader of the now-defunct Free Party (Vabaerakond) says that winning Riigikogu seats is much harder nowadays and ahead of the March 2023 general election, than it was when his party won seats in 2014.

Herkel made his remarks in the context of the fledgling Parempoolsed party – a breakaway faction from Isamaa which has yet to be constituted as a party in the legal sense, and one which Herkel thinks could win seats.

Herkel's Free Party, whose leaders also included filmmaker Artur Talvik and, later on, Kaul Nurm, held six seats in the XIII Riigikogu, which contained six parties, one more than the present-day tally which followed the March 2019 election.

Talking to ERR radio show "Vikerhommik" Thursday, Herkel said that the older, established parties have such a solid electoral base and membership nationwide, not to mention funding and infrastructure, that the playing field is not an equal one in respect to newcomers.

He said: "The concerns do not relate to state support as such, but rather the proportion of the same; the amounts of support amounts are substantial, ensure an advantage in a pure electoral advertising campaign."

Herkel was referring to support provided in proportion to party size and representation. For instance, Reform, with 34 seats, received €433,000 in state support in the second quarter of this year, compared with  €127,242 to the Social Democrats (SDE), who have 10 seats.

At the same time, the distribution of funding and benefits to citizens, for instance via the controversial "protection funds" - issued to parties to allocate to regional projects of their choice – is not the sole influence on an election's outcome.

Another relative newcomer, Eesti 200 – founded in summer 2018 at the same point in the electoral cycle as the present day is in relation to next March – after a sustained period of popularity towards the end of last year and early on this year, has lost significant ground since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February – this and the recent change in administration are major factors here, Herkel said.

The formation of the new tripartite Reform/Isamaa/SDE coalition and the exit of the Reform/Center lineup, with a brief interlude of a few weeks earlier in the summer when Reform was in office alone, has led to a fall in the public's desire for a new political force on the scene, which in turn has caused headaches both for Eesti 200 and for the Parempoolsed, and any other newcomers.

Eesti 200 won seats at last October's local elections but has yet to win any Riigikogu seats and contests its second general election next spring.

Support for such parties tends to be more volatile and sensitive to such changes, than the old guard, he said.

At the same time, Herkel said he welcomes the creation of new political parties, since it facilitiates an open political system.

At the moment, politics needs a balanced force that would stand for right-leaning values, Herkel added, likely referring primarily to more right-libertarian-oriented principles such as low taxation and minimal governmental and state interference in business and other affairs.

He said: "The Reform Party has also abandoned these to a significant extent in its coalition pronouncements."

Additionally, the legal requirement for at least 500 members (a threshold which the Free Party got perilously close to prior to its disbanding after the 2019 general election – ed.) to register as a political party has the effect of harming potential newcomers, he said.

A minimum of 100 members is sufficient if these members are on the same page and are able to develop a political program.

500 members is already enough for a divergence of ideas and policy, he added – a problem the Free Party was suffering from.

The remnants of the Free Party merged with another party which had failed to make headway as a newcomer, the Artur Talvik-led Richness of Life party. The party had a comparatively libertarian/anarchist platform and espoused subsidiarity.

The result of the merger, TULE, polls at lower than 1 percent according to most political party surveys.

The remaining significant party, the Greens, have in the past had a Riigikogu seat, but currently poll below the 5 percent threshold required, under Estonia's modified d'Hondt system of proprotional representation (PR), to win seats in any constituency and in any election – while Herkel did not mention this, this could arguably work against new or very small parties, although arguments in favor of PR include one that smaller parties may get more representation than in first-past-the-post systems.

The general election is on May 5 2023 and is the only election of the year; the European elections follow in 2024.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Renate Tolmats

Source: "Vikerhommik", interviewed by Marju Himma and Johannes Voltri.

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