Interview: Leader of Estonia's newest party sets sights on Riigikogu

Priit Mürk/ERR
Priit Mürk/ERR Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Parempoolsed is Estonia's newest political party, having only been incorporated in October, and will be contesting its first ever election next spring.

ERR News caught up with the party's leader, former Prosecutor General Lavly Perling, to ask whether Estonia really needs another party, what its platform is and what chances the party – which already has one seat after former Isamaa MP Siim Kiisler joined – has of winning seats at the general election in March.

The new party's name – Parempoolsed, initially a breakaway Isamaa faction, was sometimes translated as "right-wingers," perhaps not the best choice, in English at least.

"Yes, please use the name 'Parempoolsed,'" Perling insists.

"Unfortunately populists nowadays have ruined the political term 'right.' By the way, in Estonian, 'parem' also means 'better'," she points out.

The party barely polls at 1 percent in current ratings surveys, however, when a minimum of 5 percent of the vote is required to win Riigikogu seats.

Will Parempoolsed be able to close that gap and surpass the threshold in any of the 12 constituencies, at the general election next March?

"Yes we can –  we're working towards it, hard. We believe Estonian politics needs Parempoolsed – its members, ideas, and the courage to carry out some pretty difficult decisions."

"It won't be easy. We're a new party, founded just a few months ago, and we don't get the state subsidies given to established parties. Instead, we ensure we remain close to the people, travel round the country – I've just been in Pärnu, Tartu County in some small places – and work smarter.

From prosecutor's office to Ukraine

Parempoolsed certainly strikes a patriotic tone.

"For Estonians, our language is part of our identity and is vital for us – which is why we care about it," the party's leader goes on.

In the current security situation, this is presumably even more pressing.

"Estonian foreign policy has but one goal – the collapse of the Russian 'empire,' even in terms of mentality. All our diplomacy, security questions, negotiations with NATO, resilience and cohesion of society etc. serve this goal. There can be no peace or security as long as the concept of a Russian empire lingers."

A virtual outsider to politics, Perling was prosecutor general of Estonia 2014 to 2019, then headed to Ukraine as a legal adviser and a stint with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS).

"I finished my work as prosecutor general on February 3, in the morning, and by 10 a.m. the same day I flew to Kyiv and started to work for Ukraine."

"It's always been important for me to do something with maximum energy; it would have been too easy to have become a judge, or a defense lawyer. I have always needed a mission in my work position."

The previous role as prosecutor surely must mean she knew where some skeletons were buried?

"First of all this is a question about ethics, and I cannot even imagine using the knowledge gained from the judiciary in my current life. The end of the nineties, when I started work at the prosecutor's office, was an interesting time, and I got a few threatening phone calls plus some other incidents. But fear is not the best adviser. I love my country, and still want to serve it, so when [Director General of the EU's Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport and Parempoolsed member] Hendrik Hololei encouraged me to get involved in politics, while I was initially skeptical, I decided to take the plunge."

'Thanks, Helme family, for helping to make me into a politician'

"I felt that after a very difficult final year as prosecutor general, when I lived and worked under continual attacks from the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), I'm now proud to say I really am able to say, 'thanks, Helme family, it was you who were the making of me as a politician.'"

"I don't want to say it was solely because of them, but they made me stronger."

Populism, in short, was a driving factor, she says. "And I will stay to fight it."

"Is it really okay when people like [Center Party MP] Martin Repinski and Kalle Grünthal (EKRE) are in politics? Do you really think they are the best people to lead our country?"

"This also explains why a lot of people have joined Parempoolsed. We needn't isolate populists, but it is our duty to provide an alternative."

Isamaa provided a great impetus too – Perling joined that party in February 2021, unsuccessfully challenged Helir Valdor-Seeder as leader, at a sweltering outdoor party meeting in Tartu in summer that year, then left early on this year.

"[Isamaa] has a totally different understanding of organizational culture. We believe our organization is stronger when it is open. We accept different opinions, different people, but it was not that way with Seeder."

"I think the biggest problem in Isamaa today is the financing of the party, though," she goes on, naming major party donor, Bigbank owner Parvel Pruunsild,

"Isamaa's grass roots members don't know what is going on at the top."

Which is?

"Manipulation of democracy in the party, something very dangerous."

"And no, this isn't just politics – all parties need funding; but with Isamaa, we saw issues with transparency, ethical politics and honesty."

"Isamaa is history for us now though, so we don't want to merely criticize, but also to build up the new party."

Harkens back to the Mart Laar-era Isamaa

There is still a trace of the "old" Isamaa influence, however.

"We took the DNA of [former Prime Minister] Mart Laar's Isamaa, and we believe the tough decisions he made, which were right-minded, and the strong economy which ensued, have been the basis of Estonia's success for the past 30 years. Since then, the country has turned leftwards, economically speaking."

"We also trust the people and we believe they are the best decision-makers, concerning their own lives."

"But some people see politics as a dirty word; young people are not interested in it, but that presents the problem of where our future politicians will come from. So, this is a mission for us too."

Lavly Perling's interview with ERR News. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

"If we can feel that Estonia is the best place to live, to raise our children, to do business – if we want to stay here in Estonia, with a comfortable living standard, this is the best guarantee of our security."

All very fine, but won't all these things cost money?

"We like smart things, but we don't like high taxes and bureaucracy. With an attractive environment, we can be smart – like Ireland, for instance. If we attract foreign investment and major companies, we also end up with plenty of workplaces for our people to earn good money, in turn paying sufficient levels of taxation."

That taxation discussion should be held anew, Perling, who supports the flat tax rate introduced by Mart Laar but now under pressure for replacement with a more progressive-based system, says.

"It is clear we need a debate on tax, which doesn't mean just talking about what type of taxation should be added, or how much rates should be raised by, but the discussion itself. We must keep in mind, that the Estonian tax system is considered to be one of the best in the world, we should not demolish it"

'We are the only party that says the emperor has no clothes'

"You [the interviewer] said that EKRE and Center were populists, but now where the current government gives money to everyone and subsidizes everyone and everything, well we don't believe in that."

"We would like to be that party that says: 'The emperor isn't wearing any clothes', with a smart e-country with startups, tech and innovation, not one which gives subsidies to all."

"We believe that dignified living comes from study, work and education. These should not only be values, but also be practiced, not waiting for the state to step in and help."

"While sometimes taking out a loan is appropriate – for a home, or to send your child to university, for instance, it is not a panacea for everyday living, even for the state, plus it's unfair to leave debts to future generations. We believe in a balanced state budget, too."

Isn't this what the established, coalition Reform Party has been saying for years already?

"Yes, Reform has traditionally been economically on the right, but nowadays these are mere words, which they do not carry out in practice."

Parempoolsed became a registered party at almost exactly the same stage in the electoral cycle as Eesti 200 did in 2018, ahead of the Riigikogu election the following March. Doesn't this mean that Parempoolsed is another Eesti 200, and must also wait in line to win seats (which Eesti 200 narrowly missed out on in 2019)?

"We're different. Eesti 200 doesn't have an ideology as such, but we believe it's impossible to have a party without an ideology and worldview as the basic building blocks. Naturally, all the parties want Estonians to be happy in the future, but how do you build that up?"

If Parempoolsed are avowedly not populist, that must mean they are an elitist party?

"No - it's us being honest when we say state support is bad. We have members who are scientists, teachers, businesspeople etc. who have come into politics because they want to give something back to Estonia. They aren't looking for prestige, but just to do something for Estonia."

Parempoolsed would slash 79 municipalities to 15

One area where, Perling says, there has been too much handing out of sinecures is local government. Parempoolsed's approach to this is distinctive – to slash the number of local municipalities, currently 79 following the 2017 reforms, to just 15, the same number of Estonian counties.

"There are still too many municipalities; we believe the total should be 15. This isn't radical – it's viable. Yes, it won't be easy, but it would create competition, in a positive way, between municipalities."

"This won't be popular with people with current positions in those 79 municipalities – which is why only newly formed parties can make such a decision. We are unencumbered by political positions and connections; our members are strong people who got places under their own steam, and are not looking for a cushy local government post."

This decentralization could grant local government powers to set their own taxes, if they wish, to set teachers' and other key workers' salaries, and to attract foreign investment.

"We would also give people who have, for instance, a summer cottage in a municipality other than where they normally reside the option to choose what proportion of social tax they wish to pay in each municipality."

"One municipality per county, would not mean a distance from the people on the part of the state or municipality, the opposite in fact. We mean better quality services, less waste and bureaucracy. A centralized administration in one sense, but decentralization in another, in that local government would then have more say."

Lavly Perling's interview with ERR News. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

This would also discard the controversial "protection money" (Katuseraha) scheme currently in the media spotlight, which sees MPs distributing funds to regional projects of their choice every autumn, particularly significant this year with the general election looming. Local government would administer this aspect of spending, Perling says.

"We believe that 'protection money' concerns regional politics. We believe that local government makes better decisions, because they are closer to things."

Bureaucracy in local government could also be addressed in respect of the language issue, also a current hot topic as Isamaa proposes legislative amendments which would require sessions and work to be conducted in Estonian and not another language (in practice Russian, in municipalities in Ida-Viru County).

Need to act sensibly on language issue in local government

"It is elementary that people who participate in local government must speak Estonian, but there are members of local government who don't speak it. The solution is not to send them all on Estonian courses – can you imagine the bureaucracy that would entail, not to mention that we are in the middle of an economic crisis.

"We have all the tools to check these things and penalize where necessary, not to send them all on a blanket course."

Tallinn, she admits, may be something of a different case.

Monuments issue: 'Let's clean the forest, but without any noise'

Speaking of which, the capital is home to many Soviet-era monuments, decorations and other features, which again are part of an (effectively Isamaa-sponsored) law change being processed.

"We have a lot of small symbols etc. everywhere, even in the middle of the forest. I think it's good to clean the forest, but without making a big noise, while at the same time leaving the door open to those cultural symbols for instance. I would like to think the painting on the ceiling of the national opera would stay, but I am not an expert. I would like to be able to trust those who make these decisions."

"Russia as I said is an aggressor state and has influenced our internal democratic processes, negatively, leading to a broken society. They use everything they can in their information war, also via some of this symbolism in public places."

Party to run in all 12 constituencies at March 2023 general election

So much for policies, but what about candidates – absolutely crucial in Estonia's personality-driven election campaigns.

"We will run in all constituencies in the country," Perling says.

"It's no secret that we started two years later than other parties; our candidate lists should be ready in the middle of January, while there are a lot of negotiations in process at the moment."

"Hendrik Hololei as noted, plus [diplomat] Marten Kokk are members of our party, as is Professor Arne Merilai, and well-known scientist and hydrogen energy expert Andi Hektor."

The party leader and the party logo. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

"We are also happy and proud when people like [filmmaker and journalist] Ilmar Raag publicly express their support, as has [Ekspress Group owner] Hans H. Luik just a couple of days ago, while [political scientist] Ott Lumi expressed his support just yesterday."

And former President Kersti Kaljulaid? Surely the Parempoolsed worldview and policies would suit her perfectly?

"She has openly said that she will not be joining a party. She is a strong person, but first and foremost, this is down to her."

"Ours is a totally new story. We are the youngest party in Estonia, and we really believe that Estonia needs Parempoolsed in parliament, and that we will be there in the XV Riigikogu," Perling concludes.

Lavly Perling had not seen the questions put to her prior to the above interview taking place.


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Editor: Michael Cole, Marcus Turovski

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