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Center Party whip: Congress urgently needed to resolve rift

Jaanus Karilaid.
Jaanus Karilaid. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

The opposition Center Party urgently needs a general congress where party members can grant a mandate to the next leader, following news that a rift between two factions within the party has resurfaced, Center's Riigikogu chief whip, Jaanus Karilaid, says.

Karilaid said Thursday that: "The party needs an emergency congress, in my personal opinion. If Jüri Ratas as party chair cannot implement his visions and ideas, while if Mihhail Kõvart's camp has opted to obstruct this work from being done, then these arguments and the current state of the party must be brought before all party members, to take a new mandate. After that, we can see how the Center Party might move forward, and with whom."

Karilaid said this proposed congress must be convened as soon as possible and on an extraordinary basis, regardless of the summer recess.

"While just a month ago there was some hope that a functioning peace might be installed in the party and that the decision of the party's board [to retain Ratas as leader] would be reconciled, now the intransigence has become so great that the need for a congress is obvious. In a situation where support for Jüri Ratas for the post of prime minister ought to be the first priority for [sitting prime minister] Kaja Kallas, in this situation where Ratas' actions are being continually undermined, I believe that a new mandate should be given to the party chair, and also to the board," Karilaid went on.

Karilaid stopped short of talking about the potential disintegration of his party, enumerating several possible scenarios in the near future – with the balancing between its Estonian wing, characterized by Ratas, and its Russian wing, exemplified by Kõlvart mainly.

These two wings are nothing new and hearken back to the party's origins, when it was founded by Edgar Savisaar (1950-2022), but the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine put new emphasis on the contrasting aspects within the same party.

Center had in any case seen its support in its traditional heartland of Ida-Viru County, and to a lesser extent in Tallinn, dwindling long before the invasion, however; signs of this were already evident at the March 2019 Riigikogu election.

Various corruption scandals which have dogged the party for many years may have taken their toll with the voters, though to what extent is less clear – certainly major fines had harmed the party's bank balance and consequently its campaigning abilities in comparison with Reform's, ahead of this year's election.

"These contradictions have existed for quite a long time, and now this is also all out there in front of the public. This makes it reasonable to settle these matters at an extraordinary congress," Karilaid, as Riigikogu chief whip an important mover and shaker within the party himself, went on.

Center leader Jüri Ratas, prime minister November 2016-January 2021, said Thursday that the party was split. Controversy over a decision to return a €300,000 donation from businessman Parvel Pruunsild, who has in recent times also been Isamaa's largest single donor, was dismissed by Ratas' effective challenger, Mihhail Kõlvart, as "hysteria."

Tensions between supporters of Ratas, some-time protege of Savisaar, and Kõlvart, current Tallinn mayor, peaked in April, when the party board voted against convening the type of congress which Karilaid is now saying is a matter of urgency.

The party lost 10 seats at the March 5 Riigikogu election.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Urmet Kook

Source: ERR Radio news, interviewer Indrek Kiisler.

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