Center Party supporters emerge for both Ratas and Kõlvart as next leader

Center Party headquarters in Tallinn.
Center Party headquarters in Tallinn. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Battle lines appear to be getting drawn around two camps within the Center Party, those who support Tallinn Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart as a potential new party leader, and those who pledge loyalty to current leader Jüri Ratas, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Wednesday.

Center's MEP, Yana Toom, however, denied that there was any division along linguistic lines within the party or its voters, saying:  "This talk about 'wings' ...  I read about it again yesterday and laughed heartily at the idea that we supposedly have an 'Estonian wing', a 'Russian wing' and then a 'Tallinn wing' - that we are some sort of three-winged creature."

"We are just the Center Party, and the weak mandate [after the March 5 election] is actually bad for society, because we are the one party that can speak to both Estonian and Russian-speaking voters," Toom, one of the party's deputy chairs, added.

Toom was speaking in the context of an extraordinary party congress proposed this week, by Jüri Ratas, who is effectively facing a leadership challenge from Center Party Tallinn Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart.

Kõlvart's first language is Russian, Ratas' is Estonian.

Ratas said that while he would not stand in the way of the congress convening if the party wanted it, added that it is not the unanimous desire of the party rank and file. "None of the party's regional branches have said that they want an extraordinary congress like this. Yesterday, for example, an assembly of senior members took place, who clearly stated that they do not consider this to be correct and needed."

"I don't think it reasonable at present either to hold this extraordinary congress, but if there are people in the Center Party, including vice-chairs, board members -  for example Mihhail Kõlvart and Lauri Laats - who want it, I definitely will not work against that," he went on.

Mihhail Kõlvart, who is also a Center deputy chair, has gone back on his previous line that he would not run for party leader, saying that after the election, it is clear Center needs a change of direction

Kõlvart said: "First of all, we have to start by dealing with the organization, its structure, the regional organization. We have seen that in recent years we have not been able to offer much in the way of attention and resources, and this has also affected our election results."

Lauri Laats, Mustamäe [Tallinn] district elder and party board member, who supports Kõvart's candidacy, says the entire party board is responsible for the current situation, however.

Laats said: "Looking at our election result, we certainly need a reboot; we need  analysis, and it is clear that some of our regional support has weakened, and we have to start building them up."

 Ratas agreed more work needed to be done in the regions – likely referring mostly to Ida-Viru County, traditionally a bedrock support area for Center but which March 5 saw that greatly depleted, a trend already started in the March 2019 election.

However, given Center's budget situation at present, Ratas called into question how viable making major structural changes would prove.

Both Ratas and Kõlvart have their fair share of supporters from within the party; the congress proposed earlier this week, by Ratas, with board approval, would take place in June, a year ahead of schedule, and arose following a party board meeting initially intended just to hold an election post mortem.

Center's chief Riigigkogu whip, Jaanus Karilaid, says the congress at this point would be inappropriate, and that Ratas should continue as leader, noting the latter's political acumen on this.

 "I think that the policy of balance that Jüri Ratas has pursued represents high political art. We have Russian voters, and Estonian voters, and maintaining this balance in society is very tricky," he continued.

 Ratas himself also supports altering the party's platform on environmental issues, the transition to Estonian-only education, and the Registered Partnership Act.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Barbara Oja, Merili Nael

Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera'

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