Gallery: Mihhail Kõlvart elected new Center Party chair at Paide congress

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Tallinn mayor and deputy party chair Mihhail Kõlvart was elected the new chair of Estonia's Center Party at an extraordinary congress in Paide on Sunday, succeeding Jüri Ratas in the role. Candidates supporting Kõlvart's run earned more support in the party board elections as well.

Kõlvart earned the votes of 543 delegates at Sunday's elections.

Center Party whip and fellow deputy party chair Tanel Kiik earned the votes of 489 delegates.

In his victory speech, Kõlvart requested he be given time to prove himself as party leader by those who didn't vote for him as well.

"If anyone was hit with the emotion that I'm not fit to be your party chair, please give me time," he said, addressing the congress. "I'm going to try to prove with my work that I can do it. I understand what a great responsibility, what a load this is."

The newly elected party leader also thanked Kiik, whom he described as a worthy opponent.

"I believe we became stronger for the competition that arose," he said. "I'm positive that Tanel has a great perspective. The numbers showed that our chances were equal. Now let's combine these two potentials, and a united party will emerge. We can do this."

Mihhail Kõlvart being photographed hugging at the end of the Center Party extraordinary congress in Paide on Sunday. September 10, 2023. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Kõlvart, a black belt in taekwondo, said that he knows from martial arts that if you have a strong sparring partner, that makes you stronger too.

"We had solid competition, and we managed to demonstrate that we have great potential," he continued. "We'll definitely move forward together."

Kõlvart supporters take majority on party board

Elected to the Center Party board on Sunday were Jüri Ratas (549 votes), Jaak Aab (535), Lauri Laats (496), Taavi Aas (477), Vadim Belobrovtsev (466), Vladimir Svet (456), Yana Toom (448), Jaan Toots (443), Andrei Korobeinik (432), Marika Tuus-Laul (430), Jaanus Karilaid (415), Maria Jufereva-Skuratovski (398), Andre Hanimägi (388) and Mihkel Undrest (382).

Of these new board members, eight — Tuus-Laul, Korobeinik, Laats, Svet, Undrest, Toom, Toots and Belbrovtsev — are supporters of Kõlvart.

Six of the newly elected board members — Jufereva-Skuratovski, Ratas, Aab, Aas, Hanimägi and Karilaid — are supporters of Kiik.

In addition to the 14 members elected by the delegates at the party congress, the Center Party board also includes the party chair elected at the congress — Mihhail Kõlvart — party council chair — Tõnis Mölder — chair of the Center Party parliamentary group — Tanel Kiik — as well as chair of the party's youth council — Valentina Bortnovski.

Ratas: If Kõlvart needs help, I will help

Outgoing party chair Jüri Ratas — who was first elected leader of the party in 2016 and reelected several times since — told ERR Sunday night that Kõlvart's victory was the will of the congress, and there's no arguing with that.

"The congress has made its decision, and my main emotion is — strength [to work] to the new chair and board," Ratas said, employing a typical Estonian greeting used to acknowledge someone working. "I believe this will be a good dressing for starting the party on the rise again from tomorrow."

Regarding his own future, Ratas said that he will be focusing on his work in the Riigikogu as well as on the party board.

"If the new chair needs help, then I'll be certain to help," he added.

Earlier Sunday

Delegate Yana Toom supports Kõlvart.

"Tanel has said that he is Ratas' man, and I see no difference in his and Ratas' leadership," Toom said. "Kõlvart is running for Center Party chair, but Kiik is running against Kõlvart."

Tallinn Deputy Mayor Vladimir Svet said that Kiik has support in the capital city's Lasnamäe District as well, but believes that his voters in Lasnamäe want him to vote for Kõlvart on Sunday.

"Both Kiik and Kõlvart supporters from Lasnamäe had the chance to get into the congress," Svet said. "After today's congress we won't have either Mihhail's or Tanel's Center Party; we'll have the Center Party with its diversity of opinions, where there's always room for thinking differently."

"If I'm elected to the [party] board, I will support the winner," he promised. "Even if it's a narrow victory, their first job will be to build bridges with those who didn't support them. The Center Party is strong when we focus on cooperation. Kõlvart understands that the Center Party has to be united. Tanel understands this as well, but some of his supporters think they should keep fighting."

Maria Jufereva-Skuratovski, meanwhile, supports Kiik for party chair.

"I absolutely support Kiik — and for several reasons," she said. "First of all, Kiik has significant experience at the state level; he's served as minister twice, and he is our party whip. He's hardworking and smart and decisive. He would be better for us in the Center Party because he's a strong candidate for prime minister. Kõlvart is strong and smart, but Kiik is more capable of uniting the party."

Jufereva-Skuratovski doesn't believe that electing Kiik party chair would lose the party Russian-speakers' votes.

"We've lost mandates due to the war [in Ukraine]," she explained. "When we declared Russia an aggressor, many of our supporters disagreed, and didn't support us in the elections. This drastically impacted our ratings. I don't believe that if Kiik wins, then Russians won't vote for us. Kiik doesn't support stripping Russian citizens with permanent residency of their right to vote either, nor too rapid a transition to Estonian-language education. It all depends on his messages."

Party chair candidates Tanel Kiik (left) and Mihhail Kõlvart (right) at the Center Party extraordinary congress in Paide on Sunday. September 10, 2023. Source: Ken Mürk

Center member Aivar Riisalu backs Kõlvart.

"He's a charismatic leader; he's analytical," Riisalu described. "He has very little emotion, which is maybe even a problem, but if we're talking about the wish and will to unite and cooperate, then I trust him much more. Tanel Kiik, should he win, will throw me out of the Center Party."

"I like him as a man — a very talented and smart man," Lasnamäe delegate Dmitri Budõlin said about Kõlvart. "I've known him for ten years already, and he is constantly surprising me with his sense. Tanel Kiik is young."

MP Lauri Laats, who supports Kõlvart for party chair, stated that Kiik supporters' claims regarding Kõlvart's pro-Russian sentiments are incorrect.

"It's a myth, started by some party members, that if Kõlvart ends up chair of the party, we'll become pro-Russian or lose Estonian votes," Laats said. "That's not the case. Knowing Mihhail, he's a uniter, not a destroyer. This is how the party is going to be rebuilt too. The foundation laid by Edgar Savisaar has weakened, and that can be seen in [our] election results too."

According to the MP, many delegates have said that they wouldn't make their final decision until Sunday's congress, and would base their choice on which candidate's speech is more impressive.

Karilaid dials back threat to quit if Kõlvart wins

Speaking to ERR on Sunday, Center Party deputy chair Jaanus Karilaid dialed back his recent claim that he would quit the party if Mihhail Kõlvart is elected party chair at the extraordinary party congress.

In an appearance on Kanal 2's "Täistund" on Wednesday, he had stated that he certainly has no interest in remaining in the Center Party if Kõlvart and Toom were to win Sunday's extraordinary congress elections.

At the congress itself in Paide, however, he now said that he will quit the party once he realizes that key issues in the party no longer depend on him.

"When I see that the party's direction is no longer up to me and I'm incapable of balancing the party's core beliefs, then I will make my choices," he said.

The current deputy chair stressed that not much may depend on the new party leader alone.

"Let's see who will end up leading the party," he said. "If it's Kõlvart, then we'll also be electing 14 people to the party board. We saw that when Jüri Ratas led the party, the party board started obstructing his activity. Who is going to be leading the party depends very much on the party board. Who is the party chair alone won't yet indicate this."

Karilaid said they must wait for the results, and then they'd see whether the Center Party can get out of this crisis together or not.

"The parliamentary season begins tomorrow, and the [Center] parliamentary group must be united," he emphasized.

Party board, other roles to be elected too

A total of 34 party members are running for election to the Center Party's governing bodies at Sunday's extraordinary congress, among them 12 regional chairs, 10 MPs and several local government leaders.

20 candidates are running for election to the party board, two for election as party honor court chair, and ten to the party's audit committee.

Delegates will 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.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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