Isamaa leader: Estonian political landscape will be reshaped

Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa).
Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Urmas Reinsalu, chairman of the increasingly popular Isamaa party, tells ERR in an interview that his organization is the only credible alternative to the government's policy at this time. At the same time, Reinsalu does not predict a government collapse nor does he see Isamaa replacing Eesti 200 or SDE in Reform's government.

Why are so many people joining Isamaa lately?

People feel that politics has changed, that their recent political family is no longer in line with their convictions. Ronald Reagan once said, when leaving the Democrats for the Republicans, that the Democratic Party left him and not the other way around. I believe that we are in for a fundamental change of the political landscape. What was valid yesterday no longer matches the expectations of the Estonian society.

Do you credit your own successful efforts or are the government's shortcomings the cause?

People make those decisions for themselves. It would be sensible to have a solid alternative to this government's policy. Boiling down Estonian politics to a clash between the Reform Party and the Conservative People's Party (EKRE), which has been the case in recent years, is a very primitive approach and one that works to split society along the lines of culture wars. People want another mainstream option, which hope is just what Isamaa embodies today.

However, there seems to have been a shift of some significance. It cannot just be a case of individual choices coinciding. It is a trend – Isamaa's rating is growing and people are joining the party.

The political landscape is changing, and it is not a matter of the choices of people who are active in politics. The attitude of the Estonian people has changed dramatically, as we are seeing from the polls. Therefore, we are dealing with a broader process of the political landscape being reshaped.

How have well-known politicians ended up in Isamaa? People like Urve Palo or former top members of the Center Party? Did you approach them?

Urve Palo contacted us, as have many others. Isamaa will soon have other new members, both from within political circles and the outside, news about whom has not reached the public. But it is not just about inviting and convincing someone... The person has arrived at a fundamental conclusion, and these are difficult choices for people.

While we might ask why not join another party, I believe that people are tired of mean rhetoric, a style that offers no positive solutions. Right now, it is important to send the signal that cooperation that transcends party lines is possible to offer people hope and positivity.

During tough times – and this might seem paradoxical – I'm thinking about young people who for the first time find themselves in a stressful environment they perhaps haven't experienced before. The older generation remembers the end of the Soviet era, the transition of the 1990s, how we had to go without warm water etc. But for the younger generation, this stressful environment – the coronavirus and war – constitutes the first such crisis, and it is very important to send young people the signal that there's hope, that a positive path exists.

How to explain people completely reversing their ideological position? Center has historically been a left-wing party, not to mention the Social Democrats (former party of Urve Palo – ed.), while Isamaa is clearly on the political right. It is one thing to look for an alternative to the government, while it must also be a matter of worldview.

Everyone who has joined Isamaa accept its values. But as I said, the political landscape is being reshaped on a fundamental level. Society's expectations are defined differently and no longer fit on the classical left-right axis. People want mature leadership and rational choices.

Let us take if only teachers' salary demands and how the government has been reacting. The solution is neither left- nor right-wing. The solution is making sure schools keep working. The sensible thing to do would be to engage teachers in dialogue and find a compromise, instead of simply telling teachers that we will talk to you next August. That is what political responsibility is all about.

Ideologies also clash inside the government as the Social Democrats have been against Reform's position and believe that money to hike teachers' wages must be found.

It is a rhetorical pose meant to keep or protect voters. But there is no balance in the government, which I perceive as problematic. The Reform Party's political weight is so much greater than its partners' to make the coalition function as the former's power vertical. And while the minority partners sometimes try to play the role of good cop when their self-preservation instinct kicks in, actions speak louder than words.

Are you speaking from experience or has Reform's approach changed in time?

It also depends on one's courage to stand up to a larger partner. I believe Isamaa has been successful in putting its foot down also as a minority partner in different governments. While Reform's dominance was not as great back then, you must stand up for what you believe is right and put your foot down.

There has been a clear change in Isamaa since the party got a new chairman. Did you knowingly realign the party's focus after taking over from Helir-Valdor Seeder?

No, I have learned a lot from Helir-Valdor Seeder, including how to maturely negotiate with the Reform Party.

I believe that Isamaa's underlying values need no adjustment, while it is true that if one wants to serve as a central alternative to the current government, it requires concentrating on core matters and an in-depth approach. And it is my conviction today that giving the Estonian economy new momentum instead of dismantling it, which is reflected in the government's political agendas, is one such core issue, next to defending ourselves against foreign threats.

Easy for you to say, not being in the government or forced to try and balance the state budget. If the tables were turned, wouldn't the situation be much the same for Isamaa as it is for Reform now?

Look, we handed in our budget proposal last week, and I didn't call it an alternative budget for nothing. I was trying to introduce a responsible approach in the opposition. How to propose a solution that both addresses budgetary needs and improves the fiscal position.

For example, the Center Party only proposed one way of funding all of its amendment proposals, which is a technical impossibility to start with. You cannot turn up at the same well with the same bucket a dozen times if it only holds a single bucket of water. EKRE opted to go with an avalanche of amendment proposals the sole aim of which is to filibuster. We believe we presented a proposal that is both practical and feasible.

If you step outside of Isamaa for a moment and take a look at the political landscape simply as someone who knows Estonian politics, do you believe the government will last until the next general elections?

It'd be hard-pressed. Political statistics tell us that governments usually do not last the full four years. That said, there are certain conditions to suggest this government might. Paradoxically enough, that all three partners are targets of public criticism and the poor quality of their policy might see them through.

It is an existential matter for Eesti 200, which I believe they have mislabeled for themselves. Their approach seems to be to stay in the government no matter what and irrespective of its policies. In pursuing this, they have voluntarily made themselves redundant as an independent political unit. That is their real problem, not whether their chairman is also the Riigikogu speaker or not.

I believe that European Parliament elections next June will be a fundamental choice for people. This will be society's chance to provide feedback to the policies of Kaja Kallas' government. While there are many European issues at stake, my message is that if you cannot handle running Estonia, you will also not be able to solve Europe's problems.

At the same time, voter turnout has historically been low for European Parliament elections. Will it provide a good indication?

I would recommend being serious in making one's choice [at the European Parliament elections] as the government is sure to declare it a source of political legitimacy should it prove successful. I believe it would not be sensible to offer them the chance. If we want to correct the government's political heading, these are the kinds of signals we need to send.

Should the Reform Party elect a new chairman, would you join the party in a new coalition before the 2027 elections?

I do not think that a change of leader would fundamentally alter the Reform Party's style today. The brass at Reform do not seem to be doubting their course for a second.

In terms of whether I would be willing to participate in executing this agenda as a backup option should Reform deem it sensible from a marketing point of view to swap out one of its current partners, the answer is no.

However, in stating this you are effectively perpetuating the current political situation. I see no alternative [to a Reform-led government] for as long as involving EKRE is out of the question.

We need to fundamentally fix politics in Estonia, which is what I believe society expects, also as reflected in sociological studies. This level of support for Isamaa constitutes a great responsibility and is for me primarily a tool for forcing the government to adjust its policy. It is not about powerplays or which party holds which office. That is not what matters most to society. Society wants to see its positive energy and efficiency directed at solving actual problems. Secondly, it wants an end to decisions that work to fundamentally undermine quality of life and business environment.


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Editor: Urmet Kook, Marcus Turovski

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