Tanel Vallimäe: Reform Party and EKRE confrontation

EKRE price of electricity protest meeting. Sign reads,
EKRE price of electricity protest meeting. Sign reads, "We have all been lied to". Source: Siim Lõvi

Contrasting to EKRE instead of concentrating on tax debates etc. in elections campaigning will result in the emergence of views the Reform Party is trying to combat, Tanel Vallimäe writes in a comment originally published in Sirp magazine.

Polarization leading up to elections is commonplace in Estonian politics. For long years, the sides to this polarization were the Reform Party and Center Party, with debates revolving around what people think of Russia and Putin's policy and the relationship between Estonians and Russians. Other differences were overshadowed by these topics. Now, there is a new confrontation that comes off as between liberalism and conservatism but is far more dangerous than its predecessors.

Why is this confrontation dangerous? Because it mobilizes the radical right for which there is fertile ground today. The reasons for radical right-wing sentiment have been analyzed during World War II and before. American sociologist Talcott Parsons wrote in 1942 that radical right sentiment is born of tensions caused by rapid changes in society and uneven economic and social development. For example, when notable reorganization happens in society following rapid technological advancement.

This has and does lead to urbanization and migration, changes in habitual labor relationships. Or how crises break out during economic uncertainty, when high inflation makes it impossible to plan ahead, when there's high unemployment and familiar economic models that made choosing a profession easy no longer work. These kinds of situations have been defined in sociology as anomie, a state of lack of normative conditions and rootlessness.

Major religious changes, such as the Reformation, altered, skeptical attitudes to science, which we saw during the coronavirus crisis, have also contributed to instability. The result is psychological uncertainty, people lacking clarity in terms of their values, goals and long-term expectations. This in turn breeds anxiety and aggression.

Changes present a plethora of alternatives based on which to organize one's life, rendering decision-making extremely stressful. Parsons claims that such a state creates the need for stability of goals and symbols. Pivotal change erodes the system of symbols a person can base their life on. Lack of stability leads to temptation to join movements and organizations that offer the individual a strict and concrete belief system. This leaves difficult choices to someone else and delivers the individual from responsibility.

The radical right sets itself in contrast with the left – for example, communism, or liberalism in this day and age – and its all-permissive policy. There is fear of traditional values disappearing – radical nationalism is one result of this, though not unconditionally.

Even though elements of conservatism are used, it is not conservatism in its traditional form. The radical right is just that – radical – and involves the masses. But also the elite that has its own set of interests to protect – economic interests, the need to stand up to the leftists. This creates a paradoxical situation where the masses and elite are out for the same thing – that has been the peculiarity of right-wing extremist, with fascism serving as one example. The movement has been emotional, fanatical and shares some common elements with major religious movements.

Elements of these processes are widespread in the world and can also be found in Estonia. Precisely the thing that we should have avoided has happened – a confrontation with EKRE on one side has been created. It is not so much about EKRE being right-wing extremists, even though the claim has been made, rather than its supporters including people who have exhibited such views.

A black and white conflict between the Reform Party and EKRE will inevitably cause these forces to rally. The confrontation took shape in late October, with Siim Kallas' opinion article suggesting EKRE are in fact not conservative coming across especially poignant. Kallas emphasizes that Reform would not form a government with EKRE, setting the two parties at odds in no uncertain terms: "The party's true positions are almost diametrically opposite ours," he writes.

The Reform vs EKRE conflict has been established also by the latter. The party's leader said the following on November 20: "We can all see Kaja Kallas' government firmly leading us into poverty. Estonia has the highest inflation in Europe, meaning that Estonians are becoming poorer the fastest."

Adding that companies are closing doors, people are cold at home and work, the Estonian people are taken to the cleaners on the electricity exchange and that immigration of aliens is unprecedented, Helme said, "EKRE will not allow Estonia to become a Russian-speaking and pro-Russian country just because the Reform Party sees mass immigration as a way to gain voters or import cheap labor for fellow party members."

Martin Helme said that EKRE will focus on price advance, immigration and national defense at elections. We can see efforts to highlight social changes and concerns previously mentioned in connection with anomie. Allegedly, the Reform Party is to blame for these problems.

The confrontation serves the interests of both sides in its simplicity – European values vs. the other side's euro-skepticism, one side's openness versus the other's attacks against minorities. Either side's supporters are easily engaged. Contrasting to some other party, Reform would be forced to talk about taxes in elections debates, while this is not necessary when opposing EKRE, at least not to the same degree.

When the Reform Party proposed abolishing Estonia's semi-progressive income tax brackets and hiking the basic exemption to €700 for everyone in November, it was hardly surprising to see a painful reaction from Center Party members who demanded three tax brackets.

The Social Democrats (SDE) were also quick to react and propose hiking the minimum salary to €1,200 and exempting it from taxes. However, these kinds of minor skirmishes do not change the big picture and mostly serve as background noise. EKRE are not the opposing side in the tax debate, the topic doesn't even really matter to them. This means that a tax debate is virtually unnecessary, which again suits both camps.

A well-known Reform Party member said in November that other parties' calls for a tax debate constitute a "euphemism for tax hikes," which Reform will not stand for. At the same time, the EKRE leader has described tax brackets and progressive income tax as "pseudo topics."

The Reform-EKRE conflict is highly convenient for both sides. It is hardly a coincidence that Siim Kallas also admits in his mostly critical article that "their program includes a few sympathetic items" to support capitalism.

National security is one topic believed to benefit Reform at elections. Quite justifiably so, considering how often PM Kaja Kallas has made the scene on Ukraine topics in the foreign press.

But security also suits EKRE just fine. The party has often been abivalent on Russia's policy. Just as was the habit of the Center Party and for the same reasons. To cater to that part of Russan-speaking voters who support Russia's policy, while keeping the door open to rolling back messages, such as what happened when the party (via honorary chairman Mart Helme – ed.) suggested it is on no one's side in Ukraine.

Being skeptical of supporting Ukraine is sure to bring EKRE Russian votes. Especially those who also agree with EKRE's ideology toward minorities. Studies on values going back years suggest that Russian-speaking voters tend to be more conservative than ethnic Estonians, even though their openness and tolerance have also increased over time.

As the Ukraine war is bound to come up in national security debates that are important for Reform and as the conversation shifts to refugees coming to Estonia, EKRE can always point to these people as a "problem." What is more, the party is now treating Russian-speaking voters as "our" people.

In the words of Mart Helme: "We understand that representatives of different nations came here during the Soviet period. But let us draw the line here. Those who were living in Estonia in 1991 and their offspring are our people, while the rest are migrants who come to rob them of their benefits." And so, a paradox is created where a part of Russian-speaking voters believe EKRE represents their interests, that they are "our people." At the same time, EKRE also say that Estonia needs to be delivered from becoming "Russian-speaking" and "pro-Russian" as said before.

The confrontation between Reform and EKRE will also result in one on the level of the masses. The social situation is perfect for mobilizing people in Estonia and the world.

The situation today is characterized by deepening inflation, high energy prices and a lot of refugees. Salaries are very low in some sectors, layoffs and bankruptcies are not rare. At the same time, interest rates on loans are up on the constant background of environmental problems etc. Many are fearful, anxious and angry. Goals, expectations and symbols proposed by the radical right, which may be wrong and misleading but are also simple and concrete, become attractive.

Supporters of both sides are sure to turn out [at elections]. Especially if the conflict is present as a cry for help where if you don't vote for "us," the other side will win and the world will end. As concerns non-institutional action, such as participating in protest meetings etc., preparedness and political activity have been high in recent years.

This readiness fluctuates. The people were very active in the late 1980s and early 90s. Activity once more grew 2011-2015 and starting from 2017. The coronavirus protests of the last few years are still fresh in people's minds.

Right-wing populists who have said how the "people" are suffering have realized that things are off, there is no stability and something previously described as anomie is taking place. However, their solutions have hardly proved effective.

Workers in developed countries have not returned to cleaning jobs that were handled by immigrants. Our people did not go to pick strawberries instead of foreign labor when the borders were closed. Dangers associated with the radical right are the same we've seen before: damage to Estonia's international reputation, tensions between nationalities, indiscriminately negative attitudes toward immigrants etc.

Contrasting to EKRE instead of engaging in tax debates etc. will result in the emergence of precisely the kind of views Reform is combating. A conflict with EKRE must not be fueled or joined if one is to think beyond the next elections.


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Editor: Kaupo Meiel, Marcus Turovski

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