Kallas: Car tax unpopularity behind Reform support slump, not 'scandal'

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas with President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on October 18, 2023.
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas with President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on October 18, 2023. Source: Jürgen Randma

A recent fall in support for the coalition Reform Party can be blamed on the unpopularity of a planned car tax, the party's leader, Kaja Kallas, says.

On the other hand, what is known in the Estonian media as the "eastern transport scandal" has not had a negative impact on the party's rating, she said.

According to a recent survey, Reform's support has fallen by four percentage points in the space of a month and by as much as a third since the election in spring, while opposition party Isamaa has made giant leaps forward.

On the other hand, Riigikogu elections are only held every four years, and since the last election took place only in March this year, the next is a long way off.

Speaking to AK Friday, the prime minister said: "The Reform Party holds governmental responsibility in some very trying times. /.../ We are making decisions that have not needed to have been made for years, and we are resolving impasses facing the country; unfortunately not all of these will prove popular, so of course this is also going to impact on our rating."

Some of that loss of support has moved to Isamaa, AK reported (Isamaa is a national conservative party with a lot more in common with Reform than might appear at first glance – ed.).

Isamaa has seen its strongest support surge in quarter-of-a-century – if its progenitor parties are taken into account – following the election of former foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu to the position of leader in mid-summer – and is, at least according to one recent survey, now the second-most supported party in the land.

Researcher at Kantar Emor, who conducted the recent poll, told AK that Isamaa's recent ratings success could be put down to falling support for not only Reform, but also Reform's coalition partner Eesti 200 – which had early on in the year also attracted ex-Isamaa voters at a time when the party was in the support doldrums and riven with division.

Voog said: "The basis of the rise of Isamaa is rather the weakness of the Reform Party and of Eest 200, to whom Isamaa had previously lost some of its supporters' votes. /.../ [Isamaa] have also become more credible for voters on economic issues."

The Kantar Emor poll only surveys Estonian citizens – ie. the electorate at Riigikogu elections – and also excludes responses in the "don't know" category, in an effort to make the results match as closely to an actual electoral result as possible.

Isamaa's Tõnis Lukas, a former education, and before that, culture minister, told Ak that the "new" Isamaa is more focused on the economic environment than it had been earlier, and less so on the more narrow topic of family policy, again as it had previously been.

Lukas said called the Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition's tax hikes "wild," adding they had "strangled" the Estonian economy – so the natural reaction among the voting public is to seek an alternative to those parties, and that party, he said, is Isamaa.

Of the other two opposition parties, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) has also seen a buoyant, if fairly static, support level and placed third in the latest survey at 17 percent of support (compared with 20 percent for Reform and 19 percent for Isamaa); the Center Party, with whom Reform was in office January 2021 to June 2022, on the other hand, has seen its support falling away if anything at an even greater rate than Reform has, after last month's election of Tallinn Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart, seen as a focal point for the country's Russian-speaking minority, as party leader.

While Prime Minister Kallas rejects a link between the controversy which broke in the news from late August – a link which one of her predecessors as party leader and prime minister, Andrus Ansip MEP, says is very much the case – Aivar Voog came down on Ansip's side.

"Had this 'eastern transport scandal' not come along, Kaja Kallas would have remained much more credible and would have been in a much stronger position to justify these planned [taxation] policies. /.../ However, she is no longer able to justify the necessity of those decisions being made," Voog went on.

Kallas rejected this, saying: "This is not the case. If you observe when this scandal arose, support [for Reform] did not fall, and continued not to fall. Currently, it is primarily the car tax that is impacting on support. People simply do not like that."

A distinction between Kallas' rating on the domestic front and her international image can be made. While the latter took a dent in the wake of the "eastern transport scandal" – in other words revelations that her spouse had a major stake in company facilitating the export of aerosol components (aerosol cans themselves are sanctioned) to another, related company in Russia on behalf of a third, also related firm – this was fairly slow to get off the ground at the time, while Kallas is back doing the rounds on the international media carousel.

She appeared on the BBC's Hard Talk in late September (when the matter of stepping or otherwise was raised), and has been awarded at least two major prizes, including one from French weekly L'Express – Kallas met with President Emmanuel Macron in Paris this week (see cover image) – and one from a Greek organization, whose award is named after British poet Lord Byron.

The drop in support recently seen for Reform is "extraordinary, relatively speaking," Voog went on, considering "the squirrels" have been such a stable political brand hitherto.

"There have been few such declines, where the prime minister's party has lost one third of its support in such a short time (ie. since the March Riigikogu election – ed.), in the history of Estonia."

Over the past month, Reform's support has fallen by 4 percentage points, according to Kantar, and as noted, by over a third in the six months or so since the election.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael

Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera'

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