Leading Reform members express differing views on current ratings slump

Reform party flyers, the slogan reads
Reform party flyers, the slogan reads "Estonia in secure hands." Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Some leading Reform Party members say that despite the difficulties, the party should remain on its current course, while others suggest some change is or should be in the air, amid the party's drop to third place in the ratings.

Reform had until recent weeks almost always been the most-supported party in Estonia over the past five-plus years, and had never dropped below second place during that time.

According to the latest polls from two different companies, Norstat and Turu-uuriungute, support for Reform, the prime minister's party and, with 37 seats, the largest party by representation, has fallen below the 20 percent-mark, to third place, behind opposition parties Isamaa (nine seats) and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE, 17 seats).

Veteran Reform MP, former finance minister and the party's deputy chair, Jürgen Ligi, never one to mince his words, said that going forward, decisions should be better justified. Additionally, electing a new board – which the party is set to do later this month – is not a panacea which will lead to a reverse in the ratings decline, he and other leading Reform members say.

Jürgen Ligi. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

"In popularity terms of, a [new] board cannot perform miracles. Should all the more unpleasant decisions that get made are done so, and explained, better than they had been before, there is some hope for an improvement in the rating. But the board cannot perform any miracles in this sense; the mainstay is certainly the faction [at the Riigikogu] and the fact we are in government," Ligi said.

Those "unpleasant decisions" would likely include a highly unpopular car tax due to come into effect in 2025, and a VAT hike of 2 percentage points, from the start of 2024.

The party's deputy Riigikogu whip, former education minister Liina Kersna, says that nonetheless the upcoming board election – Kaja Kallas is re-running as leader unopposed – at least provides all Reform members to express an opinion and give their assessment of how the management of the party has been dealt with.

At the same time, Kersna hinted at more significant changes.

"However, it is not out of the question altogether that the new board of the Reform Party will have to come up with a new Prime Minister candidate; after all this has happened before, in the history of the Reform Party. But these are very weighty and influential decisions [to make,]" she said.

"If you want change, then you need to change. If you continue in the same way, no change will be forthcoming," she added.

Liina Kersna. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Kersna's name had earlier been mentioned in reference to running for party leader given Kaja Kallas' term is set to end this month, as had defense minister Hanno Pevkur's. In the event, Kallas is running unopposed in the leadership e-election already underway.

Meanwhile the party's defense minister, Hanno Pevkur, stressed continuity over change.

Pevkur conceded that the government and his party is currently facing a challenging time: "It would be fair to say that this has been difficult. The war in Ukraine, the effects of Covid and the impact of previous political decisions have left the country's financial situation in dire straits," Pevkur, also a Reform board member, noted in a written comment provided to ERR.

As to what to do, "the answer is a long and thorough explanation of the necessity of the government's decisions. It is the responsibility of leaders of the state to give an account of their choices, to be open, honest and thorough," he added.

The state budget process, which began as usual in late summer, is undergoing a difficult gestation period at the Riigikogu, as the chamber is beset with a filibuster initiated by EKRE.

Other criticisms have included the business interests the prime minister's spouse had to Russia, via a company he has held a stake in, not just the fact of this but also the prime minister's handling of the controversy when it broke.

Even so, Pevkur noted, chasing the ratings is not necessarily the way to go.

"In politics, there is a choice between leading or following. It would be a populist move to be blown by the wind and enjoy a high level of popularity over the short term; I believe in the need to lead and to take the responsibility to make unpopular decisions as well."

Hanno Pevkur. Source: kpr Marcus Liinamäe, rms Rasmus Allik

"We have indeed made them," he noted, listing the car tax and the VAT hike.

"This has naturally been reflected in public opinion," Pevkur added.

Pevkur himself has faced criticism over the expansion of a military training area in South Estonia, for which affected residents and local governments are being compensated.

Yoko Alender, a Reform MP, also felt that the current course, despite its challenges, is the right one.

"I think that the Reform Party must press ahead with the ideas which we received a mandate for," she said.

Yoko Alender. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

"What we could do differently is travel around Estonia and showcase more of our ideas to the people. However, this cannot be done effectively at the moment, because we have recently had to be present in the Riigikogu almost 24/7," Alender went on, referring to the filibuster.

The car tax had not been present in Reform's pre-election manifesto.

Hanno Pevkur for his part remained sanguine about the Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition's prospects.

"I believe that the current coalition is capable of bringing Estonia out of its difficulties and repointing it toward economic growth," he added in his written comment.

"We have agreed on many activities within the coalition. Whether this be via the personalized reduction of state bureaucracy, the reduction of state holdings in companies, the green transition or other goals which foster economic growth, the direction is clear: The state's finances must be put in order, and people's livelihoods guaranteed. If we can achieve this, I am convinced the people's trust will also be restored."

Thursday's Turu-uuringute ratings put Reform's support for November so far at 18 percent, compared with 23 percent a month ago.

Norstat's latest weekly survey, aggregated over the preceding four weeks, had Reform at 19 percent of support, or at under 17 percent if taking the past week in isolation.

Urmas Reinsalu and Kaja Kallas. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

In both cases, Reform was in third place, behind Isamaa and EKRE, and not massively behind the Center Party, which itself has seen its rating decline in recent weeks.

Reform's coalition partner, Eesti 200, rates at around 6 percent according to Norstat, or at 5 percent on the week – the minimum proportion of votes required to win seats at any election. In the immediate aftermath of the March election, that party had rated at close to 16 percent.

ERR also approached Reform MEP Andrus Ansip, Mayor of Tartu Urmas Klaas, and the party's Minister of Climate Kristen Michal, for comment Thursday, but had not received any by end of business that day.

Reform's board and chair elections are being held electronically and being yesterday, Thursday. Polls close after a week, on November 16, with the results to be announced at the party congress on Saturday, November 18.

Isamaa's recent change in fortunes follows the election of Urmas Reinsalu as party chair, back in June. Reinsalu has served two stints as foreign minister, including at a time when Estonia won a UN Security Council non-permanent seat, for 2020-2021.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mari Peegel, Mait Ots, Veronika Uibo, Aleksander Krjukov

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