Tõnis Saarts: On Isamaa's chances of shaking off 'EKRE Light' image

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The more polarized politics on the liberal-conservative axis gets in Estonia, the more urgent Isamaa's need to pick a side. While the conservative camp would make for the natural choice, the game there is dictated by EKRE and the Helme family, Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

The Isamaa party has often been referred to as EKRE Light or a slightly more polite and moderate version of the Helme family's Conservative People's Party of Estonia. Last week, Isamaa elected a younger and more dynamic leader in Urmas Reinsalu. Will this allow Isamaa to shake off its EKRE Light image? While the answer is "probably not," a lot also depends on Estonia's liberal government and their "ability" to manufacture alienation and disappointment among moderately conservative voters.

On the one hand, Isamaa has no hope of shedding its EKRE Light aura simply because the nature of national conservatism in Estonia has been defined by the Helme brain trust for some time. In less than a decade, EKRE have managed to thoroughly alter how conservatism and liberalism, the right and left, nationalism and globalization are discussed in Estonia.

Isamaa has rather been a camp follower, hitching itself to EKRE's wagon at various moments, whether we're talking about the marriage referendum, anti-immigration protests or protection of the traditional family.

Can you recall an original and truly national conservative initiative by Isamaa that resonated in society and where the Helmes were rather lagging behind from recent years? I for one cannot. Isamaa's attempt to turn birthrate and the demographic situation into a core elections topic failed, while [former chairman] Helir-Valdor Seeder's pension reform is difficult to paint in a starkly national conservative light.

While Urmas Reinsalu may boldly declare that Isamaa is not a party of culture wars, the reality is that a sharp confrontation between liberalism and conservatism is becoming the defining conflict axis both in Estonia and in 21st century politics in general.

In Estonia, that game is being dictated by two major parties occupying the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum – Reform and EKRE. Smaller players in between need to simply adjust and hope that polarization won't get to a point where Estonia starts moving toward a two-party system and the moderate center will fizzle out.

This entails the greatest danger to Isamaa. The more polarized politics on the liberal-conservative axis gets in Estonia, the more urgent Isamaa's need to pick a side. While the conservative camp would make for the natural choice, the game there is dictated by EKRE and the Helme family. Therefore, it seems EKRE Light might be here to stay.

But there are two potential ways out. The first entails creating a broad-based party catering to both conservative and moderately liberal voters.

Isamaa's recent history is less than encouraging when it comes to this strategy as two previous attempts have ended in fiascos and infighting. First, Margus Tsahkna tried to find more supporters with his "open nationalism" concept in 2016, which caused him to be replaced as chairman quite quickly. Two years ago, a similar attempt was made by the Parempoolsed group inside Isamaa under Lavly Perling, which culminated in their eviction from the party.

International experience tells us that broad-based parties that can pull off representing conflicting ideologies without falling apart have one thing in common. They need to have a charismatic leader, one who is popular, capable and manages to keep the party together by managing conflicts. Because voters tend to follow persons rather than worldview, the lack of ideological consensus bothers no one.

Looking at Urmas Reinsalu's past performances, there is no evidence to suggest we are dealing with such a charismatic politician. Therefore, using the "broad base" strategy is questionable in the case of Isamaa.

However, there is another ray of hope. Kaja Kallas' government seems to be doing its utmost to repel moderately conservative voters, with legalizing same-sex marriage, tax hikes, steamrolling the opposition in the parliament etc. serving as examples.

Several surveys have found that looking at voters' second and third preferences, Isamaa's rating could be twice or even three times what it is now. The question is whether Isamaa can capitalize on this historic moment and become the first choice of moderately conservative voters or whether the competition will beat them to it.

If Isamaa really wants to attract moderate conservatives, they should start by identifying the latter and their values, which topics excite them and which fall flat. In summary, instead of railing against the [liberal] SALK think tank, the party should use its methods of modern polling and data analysis to make sense of their potential voters and then appeal to them. Welcome to the 21st century, Isamaa!


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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