Center Party chair Jüri Ratas says the stand-off between the Reform Party and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), which the former emerged victorious from on the matter of security, also seriously harmed his party at the recent polls, since it was almost impossible to stand out from the pack against this backdrop.
Center won 26 seats at the March 2019 Riigkogu election; last Sunday, that number was down to 16, prompting some soul searching as the party's leader conducted a post mortem on the results.
A conversation Ratas had with Reform leader and prime minister Kaja Kallas, right after the election results were known, was mainly for show, he said, as it was clear simply based on math that the Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition currently being negotiated would be the lineup chosen.
Appearing on ETV politics show "Esimene stuudio" Wednesday, Ratas, is also Riigikogu speaker and was prime minister 2016-2021, said of the embryonic coalition-in-waiting that: "I really hope that Eesti 200 in particular will last a little longer, and also SDE. It is understandable why the Reform Party chose them for this."
The Reform leader had stated that a point of contention with Center – to the extent that it meant a return to the Reform-Center coalition which was in office January 2021 to June 2022 was off the table – was the latter's vision on transition to Estonian-only education, which Kallas called "problematic".
Ratas: I discussed six topics with Kaja Kallas
Ratas declined to directly comment on this issue, which had dogged Center in the days before polling day (and while advance voting was already underway); evening paper Õhtuleht reported (link in Estonian) that Russian-language electoral leaflets in Ida-Viru County had promised that schools already teaching in Russian would be able to opt out of the switch to education in Estonian, if voters picked Center.
"There were six topics that we discussed," Ratas told interviewer Johannes Tralla, in relation to those topics which actually had been discussed between the two leaders.
"These were those on which we had a common vision, but there were also those where there were diverging visions. The latter relates more precisely to the socioeconomic side, and the regional policy and healthcare sides," he said.
The rise of the threat of EÜVP and Stalnuhhin
The host also inquired of Ratas why the pro-Kremlin United Left Party (EÜVP), seemingly an insignificant force ahead of the elections, had polled as high as 15 percent in Ida-Viru County, the electoral district with the lowest overall turnover.
Ratas said the issue, along with that of Mihhail Stalnuhhin, a former Center member who the party had expelled last September, represented a "serious security threat".
Stalnuhhin, whose name might sound even more sinister if enunciated quickly, had called the sitting government "fascists" and "nazis" for removing an inappropriate Soviet-era T-34 tank, which had long sat on a plinth just outside the border town of Narva.
"If we take only the votes of Mihhail Stalnuhhin or only the votes of the EÜVP, then both of them got more votes than, for example, the Reform Party [in Ida-Viru County]. This does not pleas me, in any way. This is a very legitimate question for all Estonian political parties: What went wrong? One which we have not been able to explain to the residents of Ida-Viru County," he said.
Host Johannes Tralla asked whether the EÜVP is effectively the Kremlin's mouthpiece in Estonia.
Ratas answered: "Without a doubt. I think that such a party, which is clearly opposed to Estonian independence and democracy, should not have run at all. And unfortunately, it is not 15,000 votes, but if you add the votes of individual candidates, it comes to more than 20,000."
Center, however, continues to appeal to such a large number of native Russian speakers in Estonia, and also in effect won the elections in Ida-Viru County, he added "I think it is of great value that there is a pro-Estonian party which can speak to the Russian-speaking population, admittedly less than we had before, and which must carry out some serious introspection given that after a year and a half in the European Parliament elections, in two and a half years in the local elections and after four years, in the Riigikogu elections, I will be able to strongly address more Estonian-speaking voters," said Ratas.
As for the relatively poor showing for Center on election day, Ratas said the party's main focus had been on additional funding for healthcare and pensions, and, while very important topics for the public, this was ultimately trumped by security – which voters saw as being in safe hands with Reform (indeed this was Reform's actual electoral slogan-ed.).
Ratas: 'A politician must never lie'
While Center stayed out of direct confrontation with Reform, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) did not, and this in fact harmed Center in any case, Ratas went on, as it was difficult to stand out against this backdrop of polarization and fear – which ultimately played more into Reform's hands.
As to comments by former Center MP Aivar Riisalu, that the party can no longer get away with promises of "free stuff", given EKRE had been doing the same, Ratas said that Reform, too, had gone down this road with regard to kindergarten places.
Another party avowedly in favor of budgetary cuts and subsidy cuts, namely Parempoolsed, did not get a seat in parliament, he added.
As for a claim that politicians might even be mendacious in promises of "free firewood", Ratas said: "No, I think a politician should never lie, it's not right to do so," Ratas replied.
Things will be clearer a month from now as to how responsible he as leader will be held by his party's board for the electoral defeat, with a board meeting due in mid-April
"We have to deal with introspection and analysis for the next month," he added.
Going forward, regional structures in relation to the party, a review of a platform which is still "substantive", and the serious work of a political party in democratic opposition, are the main other focuses, Ratas added.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Krjukov
Source: 'Esimene stuudio'