A week out from party congress, Center Party divided over next chair

Mihhail Kõlvart and Tanel Kiik.
Mihhail Kõlvart and Tanel Kiik. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The Center Party will be electing a new chairperson at its party congress in Paide on Sunday. Those involved believe the balance of power within the party is currently closer than ever before, and whether Mihhail Kõlvart or Tanel Kiik is elected chair will be decided by a handful of votes.

In 2015, party founder and longtime chair Edgar Savisaar won against Kadri Simson in the Center Party congress elections with just 55 votes.

"I believe it's very likely that this congress will end up being an even tighter race, and either side will end up with an even narrower win," said Center Party secretary general and Tanel Kiik team member Andre Hanimägi.

According to Hanimägi, Kiik has visited the majority of Estonian regions by now, as well as participated in quite a few debates already. He added that the prevailing theme for the final week before the congress will be communication with delegates, but more by phone.

Center MP Andrei Korobeinik, a member of Mihhail Kõlvart's team, said that one or the other candidate's win at Sunday's congress could be decided, for example, by who ends up sick at the last minute.

"One candidate may secure a greater edge over [this] week," Korobeinik said. "If some kind of mess surfaces, for example, or someone has a very strong debate performance. Or Tanel or Mihhail manages to speak to people with their congress speech, for example."

He added that there will most definitely be delegates at the congress who haven't yet made up their minds.

"Even if that's five percent of them, then the difference between the two candidates will likely be even smaller than that," he noted. "This could actually prove decisive."

Raimond Kaljulaid, a Social Democratic (SDE) MP who, prior to switching parties, received more votes than anyone else in the Center Party board elections five years ago, said that Hanimägi and Korobeinik's talk of a close race should be taken with a grain of salt. He emphasized that both Kiik and Kõlvart's supporters will do everything they can to mobilize their voters.

Kaljulaid believes Kõlvart currently has a clear advantage, and his election results may turn out better than expected.

"Speaking to Centrists, it seems to me that Kõlvart supporters are more sure of their success and would be shocked if something were to happen and Kõlvart didn't win these elections," he explained. "Among Kiik's supporters, meanwhile, are more of those who would be shocked if Kiik did manage to win the elections."

More than 1,000 delegates expected at Sunday's congress

Unlike in other political parties, not every party member in Estonia's biggest party — with nearly 13,000 members — can vote directly for party chair. This Sunday, a total of 1,143 delegates will be eligible to vote for the new chair of the Center Party in Paide.

A combined 883 delegates are expected from 26 regions — with one delegate per 15 members in a region. An additional 165 party council members, 65 founding members and 10 delegates from the Center Party's youth, women's and senior councils will have the right to vote as well.

Last Thursday, August 31 marked the final day to nominate candidates for party chair or party council member. Which candidates various regions or assemblies nominated also provides a rough indicator of how close the race will be at Sunday's congress.

Tanel Kiik was exclusively nominated by a total of 11 regions (Jõgeva County, Pärnu County, Viljandi County, Tartu County, Valga County, Narva County, Järva County, Põlva County, Lääne County, Rapla County, Hiiu County) and four chapters (Rakvere, Anija, Loksa, Kuusalu). Kiik has also been publicly endorsed by 31 founding members of the party.

If all delegates were to vote in line with their region or chapter, Kiik would have the support of 369 delegates.

Mihhail Kõlvart, meanwhile, was exclusively nominated by nine regions (Lasnamäe, Põhja-Tallinn, Mustamäe, Kesklinn, Haabersti, Pirita, Kristiine, Tartu, Saare County), four chapters (Tapa, Jõhvi, Lüganuse, Räpina) and the youth council. Kõlvart was likewise nominated by Center party founding member Kalev Kallo.

If all delegates were to vote in line with their region or chapter, Kõlvart would then have the support of 366 delegates.

Yet other regions, including Harju County, Ida-Viru County, Kohtla-Järve, Lääne-Viru County, Võru County and Nõmme, as well as Center's senior and women's councils nominated both Kiik and Kõlvart for party chair.

It is yet unknown which candidate the remaining 33 founding members support. As the party's founding members are old already, Hanimägi believes many of them may not make the trip to the congress in Paide either.

Likewise unknown is how the votes will end up divided among the 165 members of the Center Party council.

The council decided with a margin of just one vote this April not to convene an extraordinary party congress, allowing incumbent chair Jüri Ratas to remain at the helm of the party. Tõnis Mölder was likewise elected party council chair with just a one-vote margin over Jaan Toots.

Mölder currently supports Kiik for party chair; Toots is backing Kõlvart.

Chair, board elections conducted by secret ballot

The list of delegates slated to head to Paide this weekend to vote for the Center Party's new chair are approved by their respective regional boards. Some regional boards have publicly endorsed Kiik, yet others Kõlvart. Regions where support for the two candidates is neck and neck nominated both of them for party chair.

The elections are conducted by secret ballot, and as a result, there is no guarantee that all votes will go the way chapter boards may want them to.

"At the end of the day, which candidate a delegate will mark [on their ballot] in their secret voting booth is a matter of their conscience," said Hanimägi. "That may not necessarily be in line with what's been publicly stated or what a region had decided."

Korobeinik, chair of the Center Party's Pärnu County region, proffered for example that while Pärnu County has officially endorsed only Tanel Kiik, a third of the region's votes will nonetheless end up going to Kõlvart.

The system by which Center delegates are chosen within their regions is comparable in its intensity and complexity to the way Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. determine their presidential candidate in the primaries.

Hanimägi explained that in the selection of delegates, chiefly taken into account is an individual's activity in the party, such as whether they've recently run in Riigikogu or local government elections. Chance plays a decisive role as well, as inevitably not all delegates will be able to physically travel to Paide, in Central Estonia, on the day of the congress.

In some regions, however, such as Harju County, Lääne-Viru County and Ida-Viru County, mandates are divided up between chapters.

The 36-mandate Ida-Viru County, for example, consists of Lüganuse, Alutaguse, Jõhvi, Toila and Sillamäe chapters. While the region has nominated both Kõlvart and Kiik for party chair, the six-delegate Lüganuse chapter has publicly stated that they support only Mihhail Kõlvart.

Korobeinik: Some regions select for candidate preference

The delegate system inherently means that not everyone who wants to go can attend the party congress. Who can is decided by regional boards. According to Korobeinik, former rural affairs minister Tarmo Tamm from Põlva County and Otepää chapter chair Jaanus Raidal from Valga County, for example, are among those who won't be heading to Paide to vote for the Center Party's next chair, despite both having expressed interest in doing so.

"The Valga County region simply left Jaanus Raidal out," he said. "The Valga County regional board supports one candidate [Kiik], but he supports the other [Kõlvart], and he isn't going anywhere. There's talk of some sort of totalitarian rule in Tallinn here. If some top politician in Tallinn supports Tanel Kiik, then they'll be attending the congress if they're a board member or veteran party member, for example. No one's filtering like that. But that isn't the case quite everywhere."

Korobeinik said that he's positive that it would be better for the Center Party if all party members could vote.

"What's happening right now is dividing the party," he declared. "Imagine one vote deciding that Tanel [Kiik] wins the elections and that very chapter chair couldn't attend the congress. Is that the win we really want?"

Hanimägi, meanwhile, said that regional boards typically include members with differing opinions, then it isn't likely that a region will only be represented by supporters of just one of the two candidates.

"It would be difficult to leave a regional board member out of the delegates, for example," he acknowledged. "It would likewise be destructive to exclude from among the delegates a party member who has been very good. I think both candidates and teams understand that ultimately we have to move forward after September 11 as one Center Party."

Chair election won't guarantee end of party stalemate

Delegates at the party congress on Sunday will also be electing 14 members to the Center Party board, with each delegate allotted eight votes. The party board also includes the party chair elected at the congress, the party council chair, the chair of the Center Party parliamentary group as well as the chair of the party's youth council.

Korobeinik warned that a narrow distribution of votes in the board elections could potentially mean a political stalemate within the party. On the other hand, the board elections could also herald peace — it will all depend on who exactly is elected to the board.

"Should Kõlvart win the elections for chair but the board blocks his proposals, for example, then there's a good chance there'll be another extraordinary congress," he explained. "Kõlvart's agenda includes quite a bit of organizational restructuring."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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