Tõnis Saarts: Liberal democracy in Estonia's future depends on Center Party

Tõnis Saarts at the ERR Radio House.
Tõnis Saarts at the ERR Radio House. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

If the Center Party can remain respectably centrist, then it will prevent the emergence of a two-party system, and the deepening of polarization in the Estonian political scene, political scientist Tõnis Saarts argues in Friday's Vikerraadio's commentary of the day.

By continuing to amass Russian voters, Center is also ruining the Conservative People's Party of Estonia's (EKRE) changes of becoming, uncontested, the largest party in Estonia.

The future prospects of liberal democracy in Estonia will start to hinge on how the Center Party, which has now entered a downward trend in support, is faring. 

If the party were to lose its Russian voter-base to EKRE, [EKRE leader Martin] Helme would then have a realistic opportunity to try for a representation level close to a parliamentary majority at the next elections. In other words, by bringing together disaffected Russian and Estonian voters alike, the Helmes will reach a support ceiling that no other party would be able to compete with.

Even if such a scenario fails to materialize, the Center Party, worried about losing voters, may finally change its mind and silently sign up to the Eurosceptic and illiberal democracy EKRE project, joining a coalition government led by Martin Helme, after the elections.

In looking at how the erosion of democracy has gone in Central and Eastern Europe – eg. Poland and Hungary – so far, it appears this has followed a set pattern.

First, a deepening of political and social polarization has been taking place. This has already happened in Estonia; let's take a look at the kind of language EKRE and the Reform Party use with reference to each other.

Second, we are moving towards a bi-partite system, whereby the more moderate centrist parties, lying between the big liberal party and the conservative party, will gradually lose support until they vanish from the scene altogether. 

The contours of this trend can already be seen: the Social Democrats and Isamaa are continuing to fight with the electoral threshold (the minimum to obtain seats, 5 percent of the vote in any constituency – ed.), while support for the Center Party is down.

Third, the major party representing the non-liberal wing has been succeeding in garnering a large enough group of voters, one in which very different societal groups are represented, in order to get a majority at the Riigikogu. 

In the Estonian variety, this would mean that EKRE amasses behind it both Estonian-speaking voters who are dissatisfied with the functioning of the current democratic model and, in addition, the majority of Estonian-Russian voters.

In the case of these Russian-speakers, it is well-known that, compared with Estonians, on average, they tend to hold even more conservative values, are more euro- and western-sceptic, admiring hardline leaders more. In short, they would make ideal EKRE voters. Fortunately for the liberal wing, the Center Party has so far been able to keep them back.

The fourth stage of this decline in democracy is marked by a situation whereby a major party with avowedly anti-liberal views ends up finally winning a parliamentary majority in the elections, or at least comes very close to that. 

The liberal wing is defeated and plunges into years-long internal crises, in so doing giving the new ruling party a largely free hand to erode the separation of powers, attack media freedoms, limit minority rights, and intimidate the more liberal elements of civil society.

At this point in time, it is not hard to see the role the Center Party has in heading off such an outcome: By remaining respectable centrists, it can halt the emergence of a two-party system and the deepening of polarization; by continuing to bring together Russian voters behind it, it is spoiling EKRE's chance to become the largest party in Estonia, without answer.

EKRE, which is often critical of liberal democracy, does not even need to win a majority in the Riigikogu to come to power. A coalition government with the Centrel Party and Isamaa, led by Martin Helme, would also help. 

This would give rise to the second key role of the Center Party's defense of liberal democracy: The question is, how will Center act within an EKRE-led coalition; will it stick to its previous liberal principles, or will it default to Helme-ite illiberal and Eurosceptic agenda? Unfortunately, we cannot know how Center, which is currently seriously worried about its popularity, will actually act in such a situation in reality.

Knowing the true mood of their voters, will Jüri Ratas or Yana Toom still have enough backbone to stand up for the protection of minorities when EKRE starts attacking sexual minorities or Ukrainian war refugees? 

Where is the guarantee that when the Helmes spin their Eurosceptic record at full speed again, Center won't remind us that they, too, were skeptical about joining the EU at one time?

Will the Centre Party actively stand up for the protection of media freedom if EKRE tries to bring public broadcaster ERR under its control? Or will it be remembered that in the days of [party co-founder] Edgar Savisaar, when they too were worried about the too-liberal leanings of the Estonian media? We don't really know the answer to these and other questions, yet...

It may seem to many that I have placed too much stress on the role of one political party, even to the extent of fetishizing it. However, we may ask: What other party could take the place of the Center Party, being the main centrist force in the liberal wing, while at the same time binding Russian voters to itself? Are Eesti200 or SDE up to the task? If the answer is no, then it seems that the survival of liberal democracy in Estonia will depend on the Center Party much more than we may like to admit. 


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Kaupo Meiel

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