Tõnis Saarts: Election result to be decided by credibility of EKRE promises

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: ERR/Anneli Milistver

Much in the March elections will depend on what the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) will make of its socioeconomic promises. While this is far from being the only factor at play, it is significant enough to tip the scales, political scientist Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

The national conservatives succeeding in forming the next coalition and making good on an election promise that tangibly improves the quality of life of less fortunate voters would likely make EKRE the most popular party in Estonia for some time.

The party's leaders have made a relatively risky choice for these elections in trying to conquer new [political] territory. A party that has until recently concentrated its core messages on identity politics and culture war is suddenly trying to talk about coping, economy and energy policy with the same level of credibility.

It seemed to be working this fall. The Helmes (EKRE leader Martin Helme and his father and predecessor Mart Helme – ed.) promised to bring down the price of electricity and general inflation, which saw October polls give ERKE 27 percent of the potential vote. From there, support for the national conservatives has been waning again. But why?

Allow me to offer three possible explanations

First, as mentioned above, voters have not associated EKRE with the economy or coping until recently, with the national conservatives rather preoccupied with traditional values, immigration and sexual minorities. In short, EKRE have not had issue ownership when it comes to the economy and subsistence. Getting there requires a fair bit of time and work.

This leads us to the second problem of EKRE lacking renowned experts in the fields of economic, social and energy policy. While core party members might be less than enthusiastic about seeing such potentially more liberal experts in their ranks, if the goal is to attract recent Isamaa and Center Party voters and convince other doubters, it is necessary to send the signal that the Helme family's party can give the established political forces a run for their money also in this area.

From here we get to the third obstacle on the road to credibility. Namely already fierce enough competition in the field. The Center Party, Social Democrats and Isamaa are all firmly on the energy prices, coping and inflation bandwagon and EKRE is losing the early bird momentum they still had in the fall.

It is difficult to see the national conservatives solving all of these bottlenecks at once and seeing their rating soar again based solely on socioeconomic merit in a matter of weeks [left until elections]. But elections in Estonia have delivered surprises in the past, and they just might pull it off.

What will happen after elections should EKRE be part of the incoming coalition is even more interesting. The party should prioritize including one of its key socioeconomic promises in the coalition agreement and making it happen in full. Whether we're talking about drastically slashing energy prices, rapidly bringing down inflation, introducing a VAT exemption for food or something else along those lines.

It would have to be something that less fortunate voters would remember and feel favorably in their wallets to recall, years later: "This is something the Helmes got done to prove that they really care about the people and how they live."

EKRE's sister party in Poland, Truth and Justice, pulled off something similar when it hiked child benefits as part of the "Family 500+" program by such an extent that the income of less fortunate Polish families grew by 40 percent overnight. Polish political analysts admit that from there, Kacynski's party is favored not so much because of its ultraconservative value program but rather following socioeconomic considerations.

But hiking child benefits has become the trademark of Isamaa and other right-wing forces in Estonia, making it difficult for the Helmes to compete in this particular area.

What could help EKRE repeat the so-called Polish feat in Estonia? It is difficult to highlight a promise with similar potential at this time, and even should father and son Helme make the coalition, they have to keep in mind their partners' shrewd considerations, not least of which is keeping the national conservatives from dominating Estonian politics.


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Editor: Kaupo Meiel, Marcus Turovski

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