Ratas: We're likely to see two candidates in running for Center Party chair
The leadership of the Center Party, which saw its mandate significantly reduced at the March 5 Riigikogu election, is likely to come down to a two-horse race, current leader and one of those two candidates Jüri Ratas says.
Ratas added that were he to be reelected, he would back the transition to Estonian-only education – likely aimed at differentiating himself from the challenger, current Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart, whose first language is Russian.
Appearing on ERR's "Otse uudistemajast" webcast Wednesday, Ratas said that the leadership question was: "Not my decision. I'm meeting with the regional branhces and getting feedback. However, that is not my decision to make. I do have to make a decision internally."
As to the leadership bid Ratas is facing from Mayor Kõlvart, Ratas, who is also current Riigikogu speaker, said: "In my view, that there are two alternatives is a good thing. I think it's right that this has arisen, as it will serve to clarify things. I think there will be two candidates at this [forthcoming] congress."
Ratas said that while the timing is not right for such a congress, which would convene on an extraordinary basis, in his opinion and from a party perspective, if members want to call it, he will not obstruct them.
He has also pledged to vote in favor of convening the congress, at a party extended board meeting on April 15. Ratas has suggested a date of June 17 for the congress itself.
"In a political sense, I completely understand [the need for the congress]. We have 10 fewer seats in the Riigikogu. Who bears this responsibility? The chair does," he went on, referring to Center's results at the March 5 Riigikogu election, when the party won 16 seats – compared with 26 at the March 2019 election.
Ratas said he would announce whether he would be seeking reelection as Center Party leader no later than April 15, after consulting with regional leaders.
"Otse uudistemajast" presenter Anvar Samost asked whether the convening of the congress and the show-down with Kõlvart was simply a shadow play, aimed at attracting support for Center and, in turn, boosting its support.
Ratas rejected this, saying: "I don't think that support will grow in any way any kind of show /.../ I can't even name a single person who would have taken a view of the party in that way."
"Otse uudistemajast" also looked at the question of Estonian-only education from kindergarten age, a policy which Center has hitherto been resistant towards.
Ratas said that, however, he would no longer obstruct this aim, and in fact would do all he could to smooth its path.
"Nowadays, the situation is different, and the Riigikogu has accepted the transition to Estonian-language education. So the Center Party must now make its position clear here – do we state that, yes, we support it and will do everything that we can to resolve the teacher shortage, so the transition takes place as soon and as smoothly as possible," he went on.
"Or do we say no, we see it another way and we say that this is wrong that this transition is ongoing, and we ,as an opposition party will do everything to reverse that?"
"I would swerve towards the direction of the transition having been decided on, so there is no longer any question here: Estonia will transition to Estonian-language education. The role of our political party now is to help out in every way, so that this transition is as painless as possible for both students and schools," he continued.
Center has traditionally drawn a lot of its support from among the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia, but the recent election performance, particularly in Ida-Viru County, demonstrated that this support has continued to wane – a process already evident at the 2019 Riigikogu election.
Ratas agreed that this had happened, but added that the drop in support was even larger among Estonian-speaking voters.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a turning point here, he added – noting that Center was stuck, well, in the middle, in that for some of its former or potential voters, the party was not pro-Estonian and/or pro-Ukrainian enough, while for others, it was too strongly in support of Ukraine.
In the context of the changed security situation since February 24, 2022, the rallying round the incumbent prime minister, and Reform Party leader, Kaja Kallas, had also dented support for Center, Ratas said.
Overall Center needs fresh angles and issues and needs a clear statement of position on some matters, Ratas added – referencing the environment, as well as education, as one of these.
Ratas said that finding ways of reducing the carbon footprint yet still having an oil shale energy sector is a viable goal, given it can also be observed elsewhere in the world, though at the same time, the move towards renewables, particularly wind power, should be expedited.
A more intelligent use of Estonia's forests was also needed, he said, while a rise in taxation for the more well off in particular remains not only a goal, but also an inevitability, he said.
Ratas was prime minister of Estonia from November 2016-January 2021, while Center was last in office at the national level in coalition with Reform, until June last year.
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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Krjukov
Source: 'Otse uudistemajast'