Jüri Ratas: I wish for the voters a clear mind

Jüri Ratas speaking at the Center Party's congress.
Jüri Ratas speaking at the Center Party's congress. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Jüri Ratas' speech, as given at the Center Party board meeting on January 14, 2023.

Happy new year and plenty of health and energy to all. My belief is that the people sitting here today need all this, and more. This is in addition to the support of my family and friends, who I have already said a big thank you to today, as the following 51 days [until the election] will take a lot not only out of the candidates, but also from their families.

Dear Erki [Savisaar] and party-mates, my deepest condolences once again on behalf of all of us on the passing of the party's founder and former chair, Edgar Savisaar. What Edgar achieved will not stay just in the past, and not only be reflected in the present, too, but will always influence the future of Estonia, through the Center Party.

We have several very important items on our agenda today: Approval of the electoral manifesto and the nationwide candidates' list, as well as the presentation of the electoral district lists. I'll start with the election platform. I would like to thank the head of its committee, Tõnis Mölder, and all those who contributed to the completion of this important document and its sub-chapters.

This has not been an easy task. As Estonia's largest political party, it is our duty to consider all spheres and areas of concern, and form our own realistic views there. We cannot focus just on one or two topics, but must offer the short and long, narrow and broad, view of society. We have always succeeded in doing this. That is how it will be this time too.

I am delighted that the other political parties seem to be joining in with our election pledges. At the August 2022 Center Party congress, I pointed out in my speech, that in order for our elderly people to cope, the average old-age pension must rise to €1,000 [per month] and constitute at least 40 percent of the average wage in Estonia in the future. Yesterday, we read that the Reform Party and the Social Democrats have also taken on this idea. This is a positive thing, because it means that the extraordinary pension increases initiated by the Center Party have now found their allies.

Hopefully, other political parties will also soon understand the need for a progressive rate of income tax, additional funding for health care, the fact that banks earning huge profits should contribute more to Estonian society and the state coffers, and the other important things written up over the 41 pages [of the manifesto], including the launch of a billion-euro state aid package to help maintain Estonian business competitiveness development, raising benefits for the first and second child to €100, and indexing that support, lowering VAT on food and medicines to 5 percent, the continuation of the housing rental program, support for agriculture and food production to ensure food security, and moving forward with the Tallinn hospital project and acquiring the necessary first responder helicopters, to give but a few examples.

Our strength, in addition to or ideas, also naturally lies with our people, who can make these things happen. 

These are those candidates who actually started their campaigning in 12 electoral districts across Estonia a long time ago, met with the people, and talked through the principles of the Center Party. 

125 candidates. Each person has their own strengths, their own ideas and their own goals. The youngest of them is 24 years old; the oldest, 79. We have candidates with a local government background, Riigikogu MPs, business people, doctors, farmers, lecturers and professors.

They are united by their desire to make Estonia better, socially strengthened; a country that is defended, and whose people are defended - especially when there is so much confusion, worry and pain surrounding us.

In particular, I want to thank all those who have taken the step of running for their first ever time on the Center Party's lists in these elections: Major General Neeme Väli from the Estonian Defense Forces reserve, former foreign minister and diplomat Eva-Maria Liimets, writer Katrin Pauts, TV journalist Sven Soiver, Doctor Arkadi Popov, skier and coach Anti Saarepuu, or leader of the union of Estonian lawyers Kadri Paal, philologist Suliko Liiv: These are just a few names I could mention. 

I would also like to thank the long-serving MPs Marika Tuus-Laul and Viktor Vassiljev, who will not be running for office this time around, for their years of work in the parliament. Thank you, and good luck in your future endeavors.

Management has also submitted its nationwide list for the Riigikogu elections to the council for approval. The rationale behind its composition is similar to last time, and should be viewed in parallel with the district lists. 

I believe this is a strong, but also thoroughly thought-through list. There will certainly be those who would like to have seen, perhaps, something else, but we have to take on board that there are more good people out there than the maximum number of candidates permits. I would therefore request that the council uphold the board's decisions here.

From today, we can and must move forward as a fully united team. Much depends on the dealings, words and actions of the people in this room. Not only for the election result, but also relating to whether the Center Party can continue to implement its principles. The latest ratings show us in third place. I claim that the Center Party will not come third on election day. We are fighting for first or second place. How is this so?

Our support has been demonstrating an upward trend in recent weeks. Those voters who have not demonstrated a clear preference have begun to find their way to the Center Party, and its people and values, ​​again. 

A lot depends on whether the candidates presented are attractive to the voters. I argue that they are. We have a very strong list, across Estonia. Plenty depends on whether we can mobilize our supporters to the ballot box. I argue that we can, if we work towards that. We have never been afraid of work - our canvassing on the streets and meetings with voters is a well-known trump card for the party.

As early as the local government elections [of October 2021], there had been a lot of talk about how EKRE has taken over the Center Party's positions in Tallinn, Ida-Viru County and elsewhere. Of course, each successive party affects the outcome of the others. But, good friends, we won the local government elections, when we were in a similar situation as we find ourselves in today. 

A situation where our campaign does not comprise just posters and a slew of TV spots, but principles, concrete bills and evidence what has been done governmentally.

I want to once again emphasize once the mountains we have scaled, together. The party last year had to pay out €843,000 in relation to campaigns from years ago. We have had to make huge sacrifices, to make superhuman efforts to match competitors whose budgets are many times the size of ours. I want everyone in this hall to understand the possibilities facing us, and how efforts have been made to realize many different desires. At this point, I also say thank you to the party office, which has planned the campaign and is helping the constituencies, within their means and beyond.

Most importantly, everyone has a very clear point of comparison between what a government led by the Center Party was like, and what it is like today. What decisions did we make, how did we communicate them. And. what is most important - how did we resolve our crises, versus how others did.

Very stark frameworks are being asked for; first, one in which the Reform Party and EKRE are competing for victory, whereby either black or white will win. But no, I don't subscribe to that worldview. 

These over-simplifications: Good versus bad, right versus wrong, my way or yours, will not move Estonia forward. The Center Party does not intend to stand by and watch this mutual mudslinging, but neither will we join it with it. I believe that the voters understand very well why the two right-wing parties are not even fighting each other, but are simply pushing at all kinds of ethical and polite boundaries.

The second framing concerns the security of Estonia and Europe. There is no doubt that this is a vital theme. The brutal war, started by Russia, has brought death and destruction; millions of tears have been shed, the lives and futures of innocent people have been ruined. 

It is a tragedy where the guilty can never atone for what has been done, but must bear responsibility in a way that will bring some modicum of justice. On this, I believe, there is no difference between the political parties. We have to contribute to Estonia's defensive capability, and all political parties understand this. I would like to remind you that it was the Center Party that brought the gap in our military capability, namely mid-range air defense, very firmly into focus.

In the same way, we as a society must also help Ukraine and its refugees. The last year has proven that we have a big heart and understand how fragile life, our country, and peace all are.

Just as Estonia's security must not budge by even a centimeter without a fight, this must also not be done to the livelihoods of our people and the competitiveness of our companies. But unfortunately, that is just what we're doing today. This is the main question for these elections. This is what sets us apart the most - how to move forward, when things are not going well.

The government has provided many suggestions: Seal up your windows, close businesses' doors if you can't manage... perhaps turn off the heated swimming pool, and consider how to do better. I also have one suggestion: Dear Prime Minister and the government, take your eyes off the rear-view mirror and direct them forwards, now. The journey is progressing towards a ditch, but all you can see is the passers-by! Though I do understand that this government was assembled hastily, and with these elections in mind.

But what I don't understand is that this work of near tragi-comedy where the steam has been spent on arguing with each other, rather than on substantive questions. I have heard a lot about the government's "protection money", its division of official positions, confusion over the LNG terminal and searchign high and low for each other. However, in actual fact, we should have long ago been talking about how to counter a scenario where industries have been closing their doors, food prices have been setting records and foreign foodstuffs end up in the shopping basket, since local producers cannot compete.

This is not because we are in some way poorer, but because other countries are far ahead of us in their support for their businesses. Naturally, the state budget consists of taxpayers' money, but behind this lie entrepreneurs. If companies go bankrupt and close their doors, the options with the state budget decrease. And that is not all. This is all directly a matter of dealing with things, and clearly a matter of security.

Just this past week, we organized a public seminar with our Riigikogu group, entitled: "How to keep Estonian companies alive in the conditions of energy crisis?" I was deeply touched by the statement by Enn Veskimägi, the long-time manager of AS Standard, to the effect that he will be forced to close the firm's operations in the near future. He recalled that he had repeatedly warned Prime Minister Kaja Kallas about what would happen if the government did not come to the aid of companies by reducing high energy prices.

Now we have the results of this. The standard is just one example among many. Almost every day, we can read in the media that a company has gone bankrupt, laid off staff or switched to scaled-down working hours. The fact is that unemployment is rising, but the focus seems to be on consequences instead of solutions.

During the festive month, Kristjan Järvan, the Minister of IT and Foreign Trade, said that if the number of unemployed people were to reach 70,000, the country would start a crisis plan. The last time we had over 70,000 unemployed was in 2009, at a time of economic crisis, cutbacks and a very long and difficult economic recovery. 

This isn't even a plan, but a minister's vision, in order for something to be thought of for certain sectors. Sadly, we are already losing our competitive advantage today, and those who have already shut down or are going down that path will not lightly start up again. In the case of a state aid package, not only are its content important, but also the speed of response. But here, the government is clearly already too late!

This unbelievable passivity of this government is astonishing, and all the more so since we don't need to reinvent the wheel, but instead can have a good look at how our neighbors are acting and what they do with, for example, high energy prices, which are the driver of our inflation levels.

A very worrying trend is also apparent: Capital is flowing out of the country. However, our struggling companies are being bought up by foreign capital for cheap money. We are practically giving away our firms. But it might instead be important for us that our property, profit and decision-making rights remain in Estonia. I am convinced that it is better to help out in a difficult situation, than to pay the consequences. Closing something down is easy, but reopening it is very difficult, if not impossible.

Our understanding of how to approach crises differed completely from that of the Reform Party. We already saw this within the coalition, when the issue was energy price compensation for companies and private consumers. Our pressure paid off, luckily. And this was a great help to business and to private consumers, who were struck by the electricity prices. The everyday had by then become a luxury item. That must not be the case. We clearly state in the party manifesto that electricity must be affordable, not that high bills will force people to seek social benefits.

The government which the Center Party led by quickly reacted to the coronavirus crisis with various mechanisms, to the extent that the economy recovered faster than expected. The Center Party's economic policies brought Estonia's economy out of the crisis caused by Covid, emerging as one of the strongest economies in the EU.

A Bank of Estonia from summer 2020 predicted a 1o percent economic contraction in 2020, but also that the pre-crisis economy level would not be restored until the middle of 2022.

In retrospect, we have to admit that with the help of important political decisions taken in a timely fashion, we were able to curb the extent of the economic recession to just 0.6 percent in 2020, which was the third best result in the EU. As a comparison, the EU economy as a whole contracted by 5.7 percent in size, over the same period. The Estonian economy's recovery in 2021 continued at such a pace that the pre-crisis level was exceeded by 7.4 percent; the second result in the EU, after Ireland.

These numbers prove unequivocally that the various support measures and steps adopted by the leadership of the Center Party brought us out of the crisis the fastest.

Ahead of election day, people love to talk about what the main issues might be. Brainstorming sessions get organized, discussions are held behind closed doors in party offices, ad agencies and copywriters are hired to find that certain something. It is that important. However, everything is in fact easier, than that, as life itself dictates what the main themes will be and what is expected from politicians.

In these difficult times, of course, our security is vital, but that does not only refer to the international situation, foreign and defense policy. We also clearly consider it key that Estonian people and companies alike can manage. The foundation of our country, its strength and unity begins with all of us, with the people around us, and with faith in a better tomorrow. 

The Center Party has always seen the bigger picture, understood the challenges ahead, cooperated and maintained balance. This is especially needed nowadays.

Once again, I wish you, fine candidates, much strength for your endeavors. Communicate with your friends and acquaintances, encourage them to get out to the ballot boxes, be it physically or online, because just a few votes of support can make a big difference. I wish the voters a clear mind and a faith that it is possible for things to be done differently, and more reasonably.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Kaupo Meiel

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