Both candidates in the Center Party leadership race say that the campaigning has been tense, adding that the party rank and file are now fatigued with the matter.
The vote on who will be Center's next leader – former health minister Tanel Kiik, or current Tallinn mayor Mihhail Kõlvart – is set to take place on Sunday, when Center holds a congress, in the central Estonian town of Paide.
Appearing on ETV politics show "Esimene stuudio," both Kiik and Kõlvart also said that the end of the coalition between the Reform Party and the Center Party was a mistake.
Kiik said that while the Reform Party had been a difficult coalition partner, but more effort should have been made to find common ground in what was, after all, a bipartite alliance.
Kõlvart meanwhile said the Center Party should not have attacked its coalition partner, but should instead have announced its resignation from the government when it was clear that cooperation was not working well.
In the event it was Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) who expelled Center's seven ministers from the cabinet, in June 2022, ending weeks of disagreement, ostensibly about child benefits.
Back to the present, and this Sunday the party will elect one of "Esimene stuudio's" two guests as its next leader, following Jüri Ratas' announcement in the summer that he would not be seeking reelection.
Both candidates agree that the party faithful have grown wearisome of the campaign.
Kõlvart said: "The majority of party members want this process to already end. I am afraid that some party members do not consider that emotions, tensions, campaign weapons that are used cannot be put on the shelf immediately after the congress."
"These tensions must be dealt with separately so that people feel that it will be possible to cooperate even after the congress. The situation is tense, it won't go away just like that, but if we deal with it together, I believe that we will also be able to move forward after the congress," said Kõlvart.
Kiik said that while there have been tensions inside the party for a year, these have more recently become more public.
He said: "The news we have been seeing in the media, where the party needs a new ideology, name, chair – or even the party's rightful place is in the cemetery – these comments have been around for a very long time. From this point of view, it is also my hope that after the congress on Sunday, regardless of who wins, this situation ends, ie. the members of the party should not themselves be the biggest critics of the party. Without a doubt, this kind of constant attacking the party itself creates tension within the party as well. But I hope we will overcome it, and I also feel that the members are tired of this campaign," said Kiik.
The media campaign coverage has included a message from leading Center MP Jaanus Karilaid, that he would not continue with the party if Mihhail Kõlvart gets the nod, a message which Kõlvart himself called "sad, and a negative message to send, particularly just before the congress."
Kiik said that despite the tensions and issues, the leadership race campaigning had been balanced, and the party was not in an irreconcilable position.
Kõlvart noted that under Ratas' tenure, a culture of negativity towards criticism or alternative views has developed; opposing the official party line practically makes one an enemy of the people, he added.
Internal debate was stifled by emotional responses, he said.
Kiik – who is in effect Ratas' protege – rejected this, pointing out the practice of party members criticizing the party via the media and in this way doing it down, which may have been a factor in Center's relatively poor showing at the March election, he said.
The main reason for the result, however, Kiik said, was the Russian invasion of Ukraine from February last year, as evidenced by the party's rating, which took a several percentage-point hit in the week after February 24, 2022, never to recover ahead of the election just over a year later.
"About five or six mandates were lost purely because Russia's war in Ukraine took both Estonian and Russian voters away from us," Kiik said.
The party's modest finanances, which prevented a less effective campaigning season than some other parties could afford, and being in opposition from last June, were the other main factors behind the defeat, he said.
Kõlvart identified the rot as having set in in 2017, in part related to finances, though noted that in Tallinn at least, the party picked up more votes in the 2021 local elections, than it had in the 2017 ones.
Kõlvart also said the family benefits bill which was being argued over ahead of Center leaving office had been botched in that the bill was largely authored by Isamaa, and yet it wa Center that ended up having to defend it, for whatever reason.
"What was certainly not in the [Reform-Center] coalition agreement… was that we are going to support Isamaa's bill. But how did this story end? We dropped out of the coalition, but Isamaa got back in office," he said (Isamaa were in office with Reform and SDE from July 2022 to April this year – ed.).
Kiik said the factors were more multi-layered than that, and included Center's voting against a bill to make the switch to education in Estonian-only, a Reform Party key policy.
"And in reality, when it comes to the collapse of the [Reform-Center] coalition, you can't say that one was the cause (ie. the family benefits bill issue – ed.) and the other was somehow a coincidence (the language in education issue – ed.). The latter was even a bigger, more compelling argument," Kiik added.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael
Source: 'Esimene stuudio,' interviewer Andres Kuusk.