Ratings special: Lehtme-gate a millstone round Eesti 200's neck
The fallout from the Johanna-Maria Lehtme scandal will remain a millstone around Eesti 200's neck for as long as the party's leadership does not take a clear position on the saga, and continues to dismiss the episode as a media click-baiting info op instead, panelists on Friday's ERR ratings special, found.
The special, live-linked from the ERR news house, featured Kantar Emor research expert Aivar Voog, head of portals at ERR Urmet Kook, and head of ERR radio news Indrek Kiisler.
Johanna-Maria Lehtme stepped down as a Riigikogu MP Friday after media coverage by all the major outlets outlined wide-ranging allegations of embezzlement activities going on at Slava Ukraini, an NGO set up to aid Ukraine, which Lehtme had headed up.
Eesti 200's support has fallen sharply in recent weeks, though its coalition partner, Reform, had seen its rating fall too, albeit more last month than this month.
Urmet Kook, in looking at the latest party support figures, highlighted three key changes, relating to the two larger coalition partners, Reform and Eesti 200, and the largest of the three opposition parties, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE).
Kook said: "The Reform Party lost its support in April, when the coalition agreement was unveiled, and with it the new tax changes."
These changes, including two-percentage-point hikes in VAT and income tax, were not contained in Reform's pre-election manifesto.
"In May, Eesti 200 were hit hard, likely because they were associated with the forceful suppression of obstruction tactics at the Riigikogu, via [Riigikogu speaker and Eesti 200 leader] Lauri Hussar, and what was happening around Slava Ukraini can also have played its part. And third, EKRE has been able to boost its support," he went on.
Voog concurred, adding that the total support of the three coalition parties has shrunk significantly since March, and fell short of that of the opposition in May.
The Social Democrats (SDE), also in the coalition, also lost support in the past month.
Indrek Kiisler asked if this trend might be a more permanent one, noting that Eesti 200 has been characterized by a meteoric rise, only to be followed by a gradual decline.
Kiisler recalled that the same fate had befallen the Estonian Greens (Rohelised) and the now-defunct Free Party (Vabaerakond) in the past, for example, as well as Res Publica – which merged with Isamaaliit to form what is now Isamaa.
Voog said that this can indeed be what is happening with Eesti 200. "I don't think we're talking about a rapid decline, but a decline will continue nonetheless."
According to Voog, it is important for Eesti 200 to distance itself from Lehtme at some point. "It's in the party's own interest," he said.
Kook also noted that while Reform and Eesti 200 had previously been competitors for support, meaning if one fell, the other rose, that phenomenon seems to have evaporated since they have been in office together; in the latest surveys, support for both parties has fallen.
"Certainly there is an opportunity for Isamaa here. The former Reform Party and Eesti 200 supporters are either boosting the "can't say" category, or they are looking for alternatives," he went on.
"If Isamaa and SDE can demonstrated themselves to prove a credible enough alternative, they can grow support at [Reform and Eesti 200's] expense," Voog added.
With Reform's support dropping significantly in April but then stabilizing in May, did this mean that the core baseline level of loyal Reform support had been reached, Kook inquired of Voog.
The latter noted that since in the past, support for Reform has fallen to as low as 20 percent, this could be taken as that baseline level, though with Eesti 200, the figure was harder to ascertain.
Kiisler noted that Eesti 200 leader Lauri Hussar, a former Postimees editor-in-chief, might be out of his depth in having taken on the Riigikogu speaker role, having never even sat in parliament before.
Without clear statements on the fall-out from the Lehtme scandal, which only reached its crescendo this week, Eesi 200's support level is similarly hard to forecast, he added.
Kook's take on that was that, so far, Eesti 200's leadership has come out in clear defense of Lehtme, and attacked the media in so doing, calling articles on the matter mere clickbait.
Lauri Hussar is a former editor-in-chief of daily Postimees.
However, this view is not necessarily shared by the party rank and file, who realize that if the issue sinks like a stone, it will be a stone attached to the feet of the party itself.
Kook also concurred with Voog on the argument that both Reform and Eesti 200's losses can be Isamaa's gains, though this also hinges on how much, and how well, the latter will take advantage of that – and that in turn depends on who it elects as a new leader, given Helir-Valdor Seeder steps down next month.
This may even stretch as far as a reconciliation with the dissident faction of the party which led to the establishment of the Parempoolsed party, Kook said, adding: "That would, however, require a clear change of direction, and I'm not sure if that's what the party's core wants to be.
EKRE's support, Voog said, has risen thanks to floating voters, often from an older, small town or rural demographic as well as, he said, a less educated and less well remunerated one.
The rest of the show looked at who Isamaa's new leader might be – two key figures who have thrown their hats in the ring, former foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu and former education minister Tõnis Lukas, Kiisler felt, were not the most obvious choices if they party wanted to boost its support – apart from anything else they are former party leaders.
The party is also an ageing one, he noted.
At the same time, Voog noted, Isamaa may simply capitalize from the fact that some of the other parties are doing badly, without having to try too hard.
In any case, Seeder, having led the party for six years, has led it into a smaller and smaller niche, Voog said – with the question being how to break out of that, perhaps by coming up with something more nuanced than applying labels such as "jealous" and "socialists" to those constructively criticizing the party, or even to demographic groups in society.
The fresh Kantar Emor party support ratings are here.
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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Krjukov