Analyst: The Reform Party will get a new leader before spring

Ott Lumi.
Ott Lumi. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Political analyst and former Isamaa and IRL politician Ott Lumi tells ERR in an interview that while the Reform Party has been defining the mainstream of Estonian politics for the last 15-20 years, Isamaa now feels their moment has come. Reform's failure in handling tax matters is boosting Isamaa's rating, Eesti 200 is struggling to survive and Estonia will soon have a new prime minister, Lumi forecasts.

What are Isamaa doing right to have become one of the most popular political parties in Estonia and attracting a lot of political talent lately?

First, Isamaa might not be doing anything special, and it's simply that the government has failed in its policy and communication. Isamaa's good times are provided by the ruling coalition for the most part.

Secondly, [Isamaa leader] Urmas Reinsalu has found the right posture and is communicating more successfully. His breakaway from Isamaa's previous chairman [Helir-Valdor Seeder] is remarkable. He is more open and appeals to a wider range of target groups.

However, I would still emphasize my first point. The government as a whole has failed, especially in tax matters which have been the most problematic for Reform after being their bread and butter historically. It makes little sense for them to get it so wrong.

Are people starting to see Isamaa as an alternative to Reform?

Yes, and it makes sense. We have historically had two major parties on the right, and if one of them makes a mistake, people start looking to the other. Eesti 200 have hardly managed to offer an alternative and have been living in Reform's shadow and struggling with in-house problems.

Reform and Isamaa have often worked together in the past and members have moved from one to the other. Could the current situation culminate in an alliance between them?

While we cannot rule it out, I believe it would not be a smart move for Isamaa to rush headlong into a Reform government. They would be much better served letting the coalition crash and burn.

As concerns the two parties' mutual dynamic, it has had its ups and downs. The Reform Party has been defining the mainstream of Estonian politics for the past 15-20 years, while Isamaa now feel it's their turn.

Isn't this simply a case of ruling parties becoming less and opposition forces more popular during difficult times?

While this tends to happen, the government is also off to an extraordinarily poor start. It is reflected in several relatively incomprehensible tax hikes and inability to communicate effectively. /.../

That said, looking at Reform's past, the party's rating was always on top when Andrus Ansip was prime minister. So we cannot really say it's just a matter of who is ruling and who makes up the opposition. It depends on leaders and a party's ability to phrase its policies.

Ott Lumi Autor/allikas: Priit Mürk/ERR

What should the government have done differently to avoid the current situation? The economic situation is complicated and difficult decisions are in order.

I believe the problem started in spring when hopes and expectations were quite different. Tax hikes were not communicated in good time. The picture painted of the government's policy was not what we are seeing today. That is the main problem and root cause of the slump.

Failed communication?

Communication and the policy we were promised versus the policy we are seeing.

Looking at the general political situation, including what's happening in the Riigikogu, what might be the solution? We seem to have a deadlock where neither the government nor one of the opposition parties seems to be giving in and where bills can only be passed by tying them to a vote of confidence in the government. Is there a way to overcome this?

I don't think there is. It's democracy, it's Estonia's fiercely competitive and forceful party system. In a way, everything that has happened and continues to unfold is a natural process. There is no reason to gasp or throw up our hands – it's life and politics.

Will the current government last until next elections?

Considering Reform's considerable scope, changes as concern the prime minister and the party's leadership are bound to happen. But Reform still have the keys to Stenbock House (the seat of the government – ed.) and there is no reason for them to give them up. It would be very difficult to change that before the next general election.

The Conservative People's Party's (EKRE) dream of extraordinary elections will not come true?

It's not a realistic prospect in Estonia, it's no kind of solution.

Reform are in the process of electing a new board, while we are not likely to see major changes?

I believe the party is in shock right now. They are trying to come to grips with their rating plummeting, and the congress constitutes a defense tactic for the prime minister. But I do not think we can rule out changes before spring. European Parliament elections are looming, and it may be possible to shift things around.

Otse Uudistemajast: Ott Lumi Autor/allikas: Priit Mürk/ERR

Will Kaja Kallas head to Strasbourg and Reform get a new leader?

I dare say we can speculate she will.

Who is most likely to take over running the party?

I cannot say as there are several options. It will depend on in-house agreements. The party has been rather united so far, and it's too soon to speculate.

Is there hope for Eesti 200, looking at what usually befalls new political parties in Estonia?

They are off to a poor start for sure. It depends on where they will go from here. Margus Tsahkna is experienced and will likely become the next chairman (the interview took place Friday – ed.) But he will not have an easy time of it. They will be hard-pressed to regain the trust they were given [before and at elections].

What is their problem?

Mainly, it's that the party has come about in an ad hoc manner, so to speak. They took to the political stage without having been able to flesh out the party first. The party's structure, how it's managed etc. comes off random. There has been no consistency, and while they pursued a solid campaign for a good election result, that says nothing about a party's sustainability.

In summary, I would say that Eesti 200 lack a sustainable organization. It has rather been a campaign team, while that is no way to be sustainable in politics.

Can it still be delivered?

We will have to see. I really cannot say.

What will happen to the Center Party? Will it continue to bleed top members or will they be able to pull it together and shake off their recent image of a Russian party (following Mihhail Kõlvart's election as party leader – ed.)?

It's hard to say, while we cannot rule out more members leaving. Kõlvart needs to answer the difficult question of how to win them back and also appeal to Estonian voters. It will be tricky.

Might we expect more people to change parties in the near future?

I believe so. Loyalty tends to waver in times of crisis and turbulence. I'm quite certain we will see other changes.

Will people be heading for Isamaa?

No, it goes beyond Isamaa. Rather, all parties will ramp up efforts to find new members.

Ott Lumi. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR


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Editor: Urmet Kook, Marcus Turovski

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