Center Chairman Jüri Ratas on Friday said he will propose the party elect a new leader later this summer and ruled himself out of the race. He plans to back former Minister of Health Tanel Kiik for the role.
Ratas, who has led the party since 2016, called for an election to be held on August 19 in Paide.
He said the party faces "extremely tense" internal disputes and the situation cannot continue. Therefore, Ratas added, it is right to convene an extraordinary congress and elect a new chairman so the party can move forward.
The situation has arisen after the party's board voted to return a €300,000 donation from long-term Isamaa donor Parvel Pruunsild. Ratas wanted to keep the money, but was outvoted.
Pruunsild said he gave the donation to Center, as well as equal amounts to Isamaa and EKRE, because these parties want to support large families and stop Estonia's declining birthrate.
Other members of the party pointed out that Pruunsild is still under police investigation and said Center does not need any more connections to corruption.
"No one doubted that this was a worldview donation. Yet it was decided it would damage the party's image and credibility, as well as its current activities, and development," Ratas said.
Center is currently short of money and several of the party's activities have been suspended due to its tight budget, he said.
"We haven't been able to give the regions enough support, to campaign, or to get our message across. These are things that the current leadership has been accused of a great deal, without taking into account the fact that, a year before the parliamentary elections, the Centre Party had to pay out €843,000 for old campaigns, and at that time it was indeed a matter of existential concern. Yet several regional chairmen and critics in the board also voted down the opportunity to improve the situation a little, because the chairman is wrong," said Ratas.
Ratas stated that he does not plan to run for chairman again and said he made a promise not to do so at the last board meeting.
"It was not a ploy, I am still of that opinion and I will not stand for party chair. The choice cannot and does not have to be between Jüri Ratas or [Mayor of Tallinn] Mihhail Kõlvart. The party needs a new breath of life and a person who can unite and lead the party forward, who can work together inside and outside the party, and who is a credible candidate for prime minister," he said.
At a press conference on Friday evening, Ratas said he wants to continue working in politics and the Riigiikogu but he is also ready to stand in next year's European Parliament elections.
"If the people of Estonia trust me there, I will definitely go to work there," said Ratas.
Ratas, Simson, Aab back Tanel Kiik for next chairman
Senior party members Ratas, Estonia's European Council Commissioner Kadri Simson, and former Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab said in a joint statement on Friday evening that they propose and will support Tanel Kiik as the next party chairman.
In a statement, Ratas said the party "stands at a crossroads" and the next leader must put the interests of Estonia and the Center Party above personal political ambition.
They need to be able to unite the party behind common goals and must "stand up for social justice and the well-being of every person in Estonia, regardless of their gender, age, nationality or place of residence".
He said Kiik has represented the party in two governments, in the Riigikogu, and in Tallinn City Government and Council. Additionally, he has helped the party prepare for elections and develop its strategy.
"Tanel is a leader who connects people and seeks solutions. We are convinced that his leadership experience, versatile knowledge, and personal qualities will help him to successfully lead the party forward," Ratas wrote, calling on members to support him.
Kõlvart is also expected to stand as party chair.
Kiik, 34, has been a member of the Center Party for almost 15 years. He was the minister of social affairs (2019-2021) during the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and later minister of health and labor (2021-2022).
Kiik is from the more progressive wing of the party and said, if it had not been tied to a vote of no-confidence in the current government, he would have voted in favor of same-sex marriage.
Editor: Barbara Oja, Helen Wright