Center Party exodus raises question of its governing position in Tallinn

Tallinn City Council building.
Tallinn City Council building. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The departure of prominent political figures from the Center Party has called into question how long the party, for long predominant in Tallinn, will continue to rule in the capital.

At the same time, the four opposition parties may struggle to find both common ground and a unified way to realize a long-cherished (by some) goal of upending Center in Tallinn.

In some ways the situation with Tallinn City Government mirrors that of the national government, in that both are embattled at present, yet both are the senior partners in coalitions which enjoy a sufficient majority to make it unclear by what mechanism they could be removed, by those that want to remove them, in any case.

Center has long been the dominant party in Estonia's capital, going back to the days of Edgar Savisaar, the party's co-founder, and Tallinn mayor in 2001-2004, and again 2007-2015.

While this could be argued to have represented stability – practically the opposite of another much smaller city, Narva, where Center has also drawn much support in the past and perhaps in the future – it has at times proven controversial.

The controversy primarily revolves around Center being identified as the "Russian" party, yet being predominant in Estonia's capital.

As some commentators have said in the context of the situation nationwide, we are living in a watershed period in terms of political alignments and trends; traditionally, an unwritten trade-off had seen the Tallinn city government go to Center while the national government up the hill on Toompea was the preserve of the Reform Party (along with the city of Tartu), but these norms may be breaking down now.

SDE gains one city councilor, Center loses two

At the same time, this is happening gradually; the Social Democrats (SDE) have made a net gain of one Tallinn deputy in the past few months, while Center have suffered a net loss of two.

Tallinn City Council chambers (Tallinna linnavolikogu) are on Vana-Viru 12 while the city government itself (Tallinna Linnavalistus) is located on Vabaduse väljak, with various district offices across the capital.

As of this week and following the recent round of musical chairs, the Center Party holds 37 seats in the Tallinn City Council, and is in coalition with the SDE, which has seven seats, given this alignment 44 seats.

Center had previously ruled in isolation in the capital, but following the October 2021 local elections needed to find a coalition partner to make up a majority – as noted that partner was and is SDE.

In opposition on Tallinn City Council is Reform (15 seats), Isamaa (now seven seats), Eesti 200 (now six) and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE, six seats), along with one independent deputy.

Even so, even ahead of the 2021 election, the idea of Center not being in office in Tallinn was openly talked about and, while these voices abated after it formed up the current coalition with SDE, whispers are starting to be heard again in the aftermath of Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart becoming Center's leader.

Nonetheless, opposition parties on the council are not overtly stating this; possible outcomes pictured include waiting for the Center Party to evaporate in support or due to internal strife, perhaps a big ask as well as begging the question, or, even less realistically, a "rainbow coalition" emerging at city level.

Coalition seems secure despite challenges

EKRE's city council chief whip Mart Kallas said he for one has no faith in the wisdom of a broad-based coalition. "In that case, all portfolios would have to be divided up between them, which could prove very difficult. In theory, the Reform Party could take on two smaller lapdogs," he said.

Prising SDE, one of the likely "lapdogs," away from Center would be challenging, however, Kallas said, while an SDE-EKRE coalition would not be on the cards, on SDE's say-so.

Tõnis Mölder, one of the recent high-profile departures from Center, also finds it difficult to envisage the current coalition disintegrating.

Mölder said: "The desire is to offer a credible alternative in Tallinn before 2025 (the next local elections - ed.). I concede that there is however a functioning coalition in the city at present, so I am not very optimistic that there will be a change of administration. However, there are certain disagreements and different understandings of policies within the Center Party."

On this, Sander Andla, Reform's deputy whip at the council, said: "We'll wait and see. Politics is a dynamic thing."

Karl-Sander Kase, Isamaa's leader on the council, did not want to assess how realistic a coalition would be without the Center Party as a part of it, but said that despite EKRE's slight preference for being in opposition, joint meetings have been held for the sake of the desired goal – government in Tallinn without the Center Party – and to keep the opposition unified.

Mart Kallas says that it is Reform deputies who have been abstaining from these meetings, rather than EKRE's.

Tõnis Mölder sounding out others to join him

Still, the frenetic pace of switching between parties at the city council of late, primarily to Center's detriment, has prompted many to speculate that the ruling coalition is not a strong as it once seemed, while Mölder, who joined Isamaa last month is, a source told ERR, actively looking for recruits to his side from among former party-mates.

Mölder himself did not deny he is in communication with some Center deputies, adding that he does not think the recent exodus of members from the party – former Tallinn mayor Taavi Aas is the latest high profile case – has petered out just yet.

Kalle Klandorf of the Center Party, however, told ERR that no one, not Mölder, or anyone else, has approached him about a possible defection.

Another, not wholly outlandish scenario, is Center itself looking for new coalition partners to head off any fall from office.

Mart Kallas told ERR that EKRE would potentially be interested in such a move, even as any support sometimes leads to criticism over language policy in education.

EKRE did not join with opposition parties a month-and-a-half ago when Mihhail Kõlvart was facing a vote of no-confidence, for instance.

For Reform "We are so different with the Center Party that it is difficult to see common ground," Andla said, referencing language policy – the party has long championed a switch to Estonian-only education in schools nationwide, while Tallinn has a higher than average proportion of residents whose first language is Russian.

"Not realistic," Karl-Sander Kase on the prospect of an alliance with Center.

Center deputy: Those who cross the floor are 'careerists'

Kalle Klandorf says the coalition his party is a part of has no fear of falling below the 40-seat mark and/or becoming a minority government.

"The matter is certainly not as critical as it seems from the outside. And people are making it bigger than it really is," said Klandorf, adding that there have been people leaving the party over the years, but in the big picture, that has not changed anything much, he said.

Many such deputies are "careerists" he added.

Maris Sild (SDE), who holds the post of city council chair, told ERR that her party, too, was not concerned about falling below the 40-seat limit needed to have a majority on city legislation such as its annual budget.

The coalition has only lost one deputy, she said. "Its more a case of the atmosphere in the coalition being somewhat busy," adding her party was staying put.

The recent movements at Tallinn city council in chronological order are:

  • End of August: Liina Normet quits Eesti 200, joining SDE at the start of this month.
  • September 23: Former environment minister Tõnis Mölder leaves Center, joining Isamaa a few days later.
  • October 24. Argo Luude leaves/is expelled from EKRE, joining Isamaa two days later.
  • October 25: Taavi Aas, also a former government minister, leaves Center.

Please note that joining a party's city council (or Riigikogu) party group, or faction, does not equate to actually joining the party (and sometimes vice versa), though in the above cases all deputies are counted as sitting/voting with their new party.

Taavi Aas is the one exception, and says he will remain non-aligned for the foreseeable future, though as noted he only left Center this week.

Mart Kallas at EKRE said that Aas probably would not be joining his party, while Karl-Sander Kase of Isamaa said they had not spoken to him yet, though would not rule him out in principle, either.

Sander Andla of Reform said much the same thing.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Marko Tooming

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