Danilson-Järg: Isamaa has become a party of old men

Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa).
Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Isamaa's problem is modest credibility among young people and women, Lea Danilson-Järg tells ERR in an interview after announcing her last-minute bid for Isamaa leader. While she does not see the party merging again with offshoot Parempoolsed, Danilson-Järg believes Isamaa needs to have room for diverse opinion and shouldn't push away those who feel differently.

Why did you announce your candidacy immediately before the candidate list was closed? Tõnis Lukas and Urmas Reinsalu revealed their bids immediately after Helir-Valdor Seeder's rather unexpected decision not to run again.

I had not counted on running. I thought Helir-Valdor Seeder would continue. His decision did take me by surprise. When I saw Tõnis and Urmas on the [ERR] webcast on Monday, it seemed to me that what they said was not representative of members' expectations. The members want change. I believe the candidates list is short one name, and I can help fix that.

Have you talked to Seeder about your candidacy?

Yes, I have. He has been very supportive.

Are you sure you're not aiming for a repeat of Eesti 200's change of leadership illusion from last year? Kristina Kallas was ousted [as chairman] by Hendrik Johannes Terras running against opposing candidate Lauri Hussar only to drop out at the last minute and recommend members vote for Hussar. Isamaa now has three candidates...

I haven't cut deals with either Urmas Reinsalu or Tõnis Lukas. I want to lead the party myself. We have all talked about the need to improve the party's messages base and visibility. The decision is up to Isamaa's members now.

You suggested the party's messages could be broader. What was done wrong in Seeder's day to erode that base? It is reflected quite clearly in Isamaa's election results, which have been steadily deteriorating.

Society is highly polarized, which situation does not favor small parties. But I would refrain from blaming others as the party needs to take a look in the mirror. It is not about Isamaa's policy but rather our ability to take it to people. Credibility of messages is our problem. We know we have relatively few supporters among women, while we also have very few well-known female politicians. Hardly anyone except Riina Solman. The party needs young people who clearly also appeal more to younger voters. The party needs a more diverse company to better encompass voter groups.

Perhaps there are too many middle-aged or older men among Isamaa's representatives?

We could say that.

A lot of young and active people left Isamaa in the ranks of the Parempoolsed. Would you be willing to propose a merger to Parempoolsed as Isamaa leader?

It is true they have a lot of young people. But the Parempoolsed's program is radically right-wing. I'm not sure people in Estonia are willing to vote for such radically right-wing solutions. This kind of rightism is also not a match for the principles of a nation state where solidarity in society has an important place. Isamaa's economic policy is more balanced, considers the coping of both entrepreneurs and people. People need to feel it is their state, and that it takes good enough care of them. We could discuss inviting some Parempoolsed members to return to Isamaa but not a merger of the two parties.

Was it a mistake to evict the Parempoolsed from Isamaa? Could it have been avoided?

I don't think it was. It is impossible to build a party inside an existing party. The attempt by Parempoolsed leaders to switch Isamaa policy to a different track was not a nice thing to do. If you have different views, create your own party, instead of trying to hijack an existing one. It was not fair play. Unfortunately, and as a result of this row, people left who could return to Isamaa. Fallings-out are not always ideological, they can be between people. There is a possibility of some Parempoolsed members returning to Isamaa after changes in membership.

Which party stands closer to Isamaa, EKRE or Reform?

We have common ground with all parties. But we have fundamental differences with EKRE that render government cooperation impossible, at least for the time being. We've seen their style, and its unacceptable, even though we might share some ideological convictions. They demonstrated in Jüri Ratas' government that they are unfit for executive responsibility. They did not conduct themselves with dignity, and we cannot trust them with the responsibility of administration again. At least if they keep up their recent line.

Even though we have many differences with the Reform Party, especially when it comes to demographics, we also share common ground. We were together in the previous government. It is possible to form governments with Reform in the future. When it comes to Eesti 200, we cannot really put our finger on them, and several problems have come to light. Voting for Eesti 200 was like a blind date for voters. While our worldview differs greatly from that of the Social Democrats, we were together in the last government. In summary – the thing to watch for is whether partners are able to bear government responsibility or not.

Does that mean you will be calling PM Kaja Kallas as soon as Reform falls out with either SDE or Eesti 200 and offer to replace one or the other with Isamaa?

Yes, it is always the case. If Isamaa manages to agree on important items, we are willing to join the government. It is clear that a political party can best represent its voters when it is part of the government.

Banker Parvel Pruunsild is an influential member of your party. How do you get on? It has been suggested in the media that Pruunsild was the one who secured a ministerial posting for you in the previous government.

The press has the right to speculate as his [Pruunsild's] donations have been more generous than others. Parvel Pruunsild is a long-time Isamaa member who has made donations based on his values. And that is great. But it has a flip side. The party must not become complacent with such a backer, hoping that the donations will keep coming and failing to look for new sources of funding. This is further complicated by Isamaa's low rating.

The incoming chairman will have to find new sponsors and diversify party funding. This can help ward off media criticism in terms of one-sided financing. Finances must not just be in order, they must also seem fair and above board. We need to find new sponsors; we cannot be complacent and rely on a single person.

You said you could use more supporters among young people and women. That requires more liberal notes to be played by the party' orchestra. Surveys suggest the topic of same-sex marriage is much less stirring for younger people than it is for their older counterparts.

Isamaa cannot give up its core values. I spent a lot of time doing outside campaign work before the elections, and I saw that many young people share our values. However, they need to be presented by people who would seem more credible to younger voters. We need a rejuvenation course in the party. If we say that Estonia needs to be more sustainable, that also goes for the party. Involving young people, providing them with career opportunities in the party are things we don't have. The party simply isn't viable without new people. They would also bring more supporters, as young people respond to young people. They present things in a more credible light than the old guard.

What about tolerating different opinions in the party? Can you imagine a situation where a member of Isamaa's managing committee could just say, "let us pass the implementing provisions of the Registered Partnership Act and be done with it"?

There are those who oppose marriage equality among Reform Party members, while there are those who support it in the Center Party. My position is simple: let us just have a referendum. This matter cannot be resolved by political steamrolling. Let the people decide. And whatever the people will decide will stick. That would make it clear. People have long since stopped listening to the other side's argumentation, while statements are made based on emotion. Members of the same party can have such differences of opinion.

How to deal with this matter in society makes for a separate topic. The specific question, however, highlights developments in Isamaa in recent years. The Registered Partnership Act confusion has seen Yoko Alender, Eerik-Niiles Kross, Marko Mihkelson and many others leave the party. They are now makin sure Isamaa's competitors get plenty of votes at elections. They left because where they stood was not tolerated.

Other parties also have differing opinions, while our competitors have managed to keep their parties together. The others have managed to keep these differences from spilling over. Isamaa needs to be able to do the same. No one should leave the party over just this issue. It's another matter when there are other differences as well – the economy, demographics or other value topics. But no one should have to leave Isamaa over a different opinion of marriage equality.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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