The latest ratings show that major changes are underway when it comes to support for Estonia's political parties. The only question is whether those changes will take hold, Kantar Emor polling expert Aivar Voog told ERR on Friday.
"The results of the poll show that some of the old entrenched positions are beginning to break down. I don't know whether they will take hold or not, but a sort of breaking point has arrived," Voog said, adding that there had not been this kind of turbulence in the political party ratings for a long time.
According to Voog, Res Publica in 2003 and then the Free Party (Vabaerakond) in 2015 caused similar changes to occur. However, in both cases, their rise in popularity was relatively short-lived.
The results of the most recent Kantar Emor survey commissioned by ERR, which was published on Friday, show that in October, Isamaa has risen to become the second most popular party in Estonia behind Reform. Meanwhile the Center Party has lost support and fallen to fifth place, meaning it is now below the Social Democratic Party (SDE).
ERR journalist Urmet Kook pointed out, at the time when Urmas Reinsalu took over as Isamaa chair in June, the party's rating was at around 8 or 9 percent. However, throughout the summer, while EKRE were mostly resting, Reinsalu and Isamaa were the only members of the opposition in the picture.
Though summer is usually a quiet time in Estonian politics, this year was a little different. The much-discussed car tax along with other economic issues were high on the agenda, enabling Isamaa to position itself as the main opponents of the current government, he added.
Reinsalu's Isamaa focuses on different issues than Seeder's Isamaa.
Kook also added that while the previous chair of Isamaa, Helir-Valdor Seeder, focused a lot on family issues, during Reinsalu's time at the helm, other topics are being discussed as the economy, security and education have all been brought into focus. Now, with the political season underway again, Isamaa has not given up its position in the rankings, but has risen even further, Kook said.
ERR journalist Huko Aaspõllu also underlined Reinsalu's prominence as key to Isamaa's rise. "He has actually done a strong job, standing up to everything the government does and painting an image of Isamaa as less of an 'EKRE-light' party than before."
According to Aaspõllu however, the big question is whether Reinsalu alone will be able to carry Isamaa alone, as there is no one else in the party at the moment besides him, who seems capable.
Previous leading figures have remained silent and so far, no new ones have emerged. "To some extent, there is a Res Publica flavor to Isamaa's approach, a political logic. If you look at Reinsalu's performances, they are playfully statesmanlike. He often puts forward naive recommendations, giving advice to the government, while knowing beforehand that it will not be taken into account," Aaspõllu said.
Myth of Reform as a strong economic party crumbles
Voog also pointed out that while in the past Isamaa lost out to the Reform Party due to not being seen as competent on economic issues, now that the credibility of certain institutions is declining, Isamaa has been given an opportunity to step in with its own agenda.
Kook said that if the Estonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry or the Estonian Employers' Confederation is sending a critical letter to Minister of Finance Mart Võrklaev (Reform) almost every week and that is picked up by the media, then it undermines the image of the government and particularly Reform, as the prime minister's party, in terms of economic competence.
Aaspõllu agreed that the image of Reform as the party that can handle the economy, security policy and other issues, has been lost. However, looking at Reinsalu's statements that taxes must not be raised, and subsidies must not be lowered, while he criticizes, he is also not offering any real solutions himself. If he did try to put forward solutions instead of criticizing the government, his popularity would probably not increase, Aaspõllu said.
There could be changes within the Reform Party
Urmet Kook said that while a month ago, the scandal involving Kaja Kallas' husband had not yet had a negative impact on the Reform's ratings, now we can see that support for the party has dropped.
Aivar Voog agreed that the scandal is one of the factors, which has contributed to Reform's decline, though it has been compounded by criticism of the government coming from various organizations. He said Reform Party supporters still have confidence in the party for the time being, but levels are likely to hover around 20 percent. "However, the situation is revolutionary and that could also lead to changes," he added.
"The question is also what people within the Reform Party think. We have already seen (Former PM) Andrus Ansip's criticism of Kaja Kallas. If there are more people inside the party who think things should be done differently, that changes should be made, then this may also have an impact on the party's support," Aaspõllu said.
Kõlvart forced on the defensive
Kook pointed out that the Center Party has now been overtaken in the polls by the Social Democratic Party (SDE), and is now particularly low among Estonians, at just four percent. Center's support has fallen sharply from ten percent in the summer.
Since Mihhail Kõlvart took over as chair of the Center Party, he has been forced onto the defensive. Party member resignations, the goings on in Narva and the transition to Estonian-language education have all been subjects for discussion, leaving Kõlvart unable to get his own messages out there like Reinsalu, and instead requiring him to react. "That's how you end up in a losing position," Kook said.
Voog also pointed out that Isamaa is the most popular second-choice party for as many as 30 percent of those polled. However, Eesti 200 has also recently been considered as the second favorite party of over 40 percent of respondents, who nevertheless still ended up voting for Reform. "The question is whether Isamaa will be able to realize its current potential," he said.
Aaspõllu said, that for him, the Center Party has already become a Russian party, and gave the example of the party's Youth Council, where there is only one person with an Estonian surname.
Voog added, however, that he did not believe the support among Russian-speaking voters for the Center Party would reach 80 percent, as it did under Edgar Savisaar.
Only substantive spokesperson for Eesti 200 is Kristina Kallas
Kook said that of the two smaller government parties, the SDE have managed to almost double their support since the Riigikogu elections, while Eesti 200 have failed to hit the ground running.
Voog said that the SDE have also clearly distinguished themselves in government and pursued their own policies, while the Eesti 200 have failed to set themselves apart from the Reform Party.
Aaspõllu added that while Eesti 200 took a break and softened their approach over the summer, promising to reveal their big ideas in the fall, they have yet to do so.
Kook agreed. "In the case of the SDE we see that their spokespeople represent some kind of policy, whether we like it ideologically or not, while for Eesti 200 there is much less of that. It is probably only Kristina Kallas, who is able to formulate a clear policy. The others' speeches are more political and slogan-centered. The talk of a long-term plan at some point turns into wallpaper."
Isamaa has great upward potential
Voog explained that Isamaa has attracted supporters from the Reform Party, the SDE and the Eesti 200. He believed they can rise further, mainly at the expense of the SDE and Reform.
Kook said that in the run-up to the previous elections, Isamaa's ratings were generally lower than the actual election results, meaning that strong names and a big campaign helped considerably. Now, however, Kook said, the question is whether there are strong enough candidates for the party to get a strong rating.
Aaspõllu agreed, but pointed out that if a party's ratings go up, it helps attract new people to that party, as the impression is that they are more likely to be elected.
Editor: Michael Cole