Experts consider Reform going after EKRE a common sense approach

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) meeting with the leaders of the other four parties represented at the Riigikogu; from left, Martin Helme (EKRE), Jüri Ratas (Center), Helir-Valdor Seeder (Isamaa) and Lauri Läänemets (SDE).
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) meeting with the leaders of the other four parties represented at the Riigikogu; from left, Martin Helme (EKRE), Jüri Ratas (Center), Helir-Valdor Seeder (Isamaa) and Lauri Läänemets (SDE). Source: Government office.

Reform Party leader, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas' attempt this weekend to contrast to the opposition Conservative People's Party (EKRE) as the 2023 elections' core conflict is a reflection of the political reality that also holds possibilities for the national conservatives, experts told ERR.

"The confrontation between Reform and EKRE can be viewed from two different aspects. Firstly, it is the result of objective political conjuncture when looking at party ratings. We are talking about the two most popular forces. But the conflict is also fundamental: the Reform Party wants to embody every value that EKRE opposes, to function as an anti-EKRE of sorts," Ott Lumi, PR expert and one of the founders of the former Res Publica party, remarked.

In her Friday speech (link in Estonian) to party members, Kallas described the Reform Party as the largest force in the now very competitive right-wing sector, effectively telling voters that it pays to vote for the biggest fish, Lumi suggested.

This will likely see smaller right-wing competitors look for weaknesses in Reform's armor to suggest solutions proposed by the prime minister's party are insincere and stagnated. "A logical confrontation to build on," Lumi offered.

Martin Mölder, research fellow at the University of Tartu Johan Skytte Institute, said that Kallas' words clearly show that Reform and the PM see EKRE as their number one competitor. "It is also a sign to suggest that Reform have realized EKRE might win the elections should its rating fall further and that of the national conservatives continue to grow," he added.

Mölder also took away from the Friday speech that Reform have not changed their style since before the last Riigikogu elections. Heading in to the 2019 elections, Kallas contrasted to the Center Party, while offering few solutions of her own. Mölder believes the picture is similar today. "At least the speech in question concentrated heavily on EKRE, also touching briefly on Ukraine, while it offered precious few ideas for solving major problems in Estonia," the political scientist said.

EKRE have made the effort to contrast to the entire Estonian political establishment from day one but also pay attention to various policies – lately, the price of energy, Mölder suggested. "They take care to stand in contrast to adversaries, while not forsaking concrete policies," he said.

Reform's contrasting tends to be on the vague side, and their message to voters is that EKRE are fundamentally dangerous, the expert added.

Alar Kilp, professor of comparative politics at the Johan Skytte Institute, also described Reform choosing to oppose EKRE as a logical move in a situation where the latter are catching up in the polls.

Recent polls suggested that a coalition of Reform, Eesti 200 and the Social Democrats would have 51 seats in the Riigikogu, while that of EKRE, Center and Isamaa would have 50. By now, EKRE and Center have switched places, and the next government would, in that case, be formed by EKRE leader Martin Helme.

"That is why it makes sense for Reform to contrasty to EKRE now," Kilp said.

He also said that Kallas concentrated on criticizing then PM Jüri Ratas before the 2019 elections as he was still the most popular choice for head of government a few days before elections.

But if the opposition of Reform and Center was based largely on the same issues from one election to the next – for example, whether to switch to progressive income tax or stick with the flat rate – things will be different with EKRE. The latter have now made price advance, especially that of energy, a core topic in their campaign after using refugees and Covid as such topics in the past, Kilp suggested. EKRE keeps an eye on popular issues and uses them in its campaigns, he found.

And even though Reform have tried to paint EKRE as unfit and incompetent, it is noteworthy that the national conservatives have managed to be convincing for a lot of people.

Kallas said at the Reform Party general assembly on Friday: "It is clear by now that this election's great confrontation will be between the Reform Party and EKRE. We represent two cardinally different choices and directions for Estonia."


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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