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Tõnis Saarts: The EKRE triumph that never happened

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Why is it that during a time when the rating of the Isamaa party is soaring that of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) has stood still for months, political scientist Tõnis Saarts wonders.

One would be hard-pressed to imagine a more favorable time for an EKRE push. Most voters are disillusioned with Estonia's liberal government, the ruling party's rating is plummeting, taxes are going up, while the economy is in recession. What is more, conservative voters feel that Estonia's recent legalization of same-sex marriage has made a mockery of traditional values. Why on Earth have ERKE allowed Isamaa to overtake them in the polls in such a situation?

My claim is that the Helme family's party has little business in the premier league of Estonian politics for as long as they fail to learn from recent leading political forces in Estonia, which for the last few decades has been Reform and before them in the 1990s Isamaa.

Let us ask the simple question of what has made the Reform Party so successful? Their recent ratings slump aside, Reform have won all elections in Estonia since 2007. I would point to three important levers the Reform Party – and Isamaa for that matter – have learned to pull, while EKRE haven't. The ability to appear as the most credible defense against the Russia threat, the ability to appear competent in matters of the economy, and the ability to always find willing allies for the purposes of forming a coalition.

Because all elections in Estonia have, at least indirectly, revolved around the Russia threat and national security for the past 20 years, Reform's success has lied in successfully convincing voters that they are the most effective at protecting Estonia from the neo-imperial ambitions of the Russian bear. If we sought to phrase an evergreen principle of Estonian politics, it would be that the party most adept at playing the patriotic card based on Russia fears will be the brightest star in the political sky. While [Prime Minister Kaja Kallas'] recent "eastern transports scandal" has caused Reform's credibility to develop some cracks, it is very much still standing.

Back in the 1990s, it was Isamaa that appeared as the bulwark standing in the way of the return of the so-called formers and a possible Russia-orientation. Ratings today suggest the party has retained quite a lot of its credibility in this area. This is not true for EKRE the deputy chair of which, Mart Helme, has even said that the party is neither on the side of Ukraine nor Russia, but instead supports peace. It is no secret that EKRE's rather ambivalent stance on Ukraine and the Ukrainians could have cost them more than a few otherwise national conservative votes at the last elections.

Any party with ambitions of leading Estonian politics also needs to show it has a knack for the economy, next to national security. While it's true that Reform might be losing its footing here too, this has not happened yet.

Isamaa's recent rise draws from the party's track record as the locomotive of major past reforms, with voters also having little doubt as to their economic ability.

Could we say the same of EKRE? The party has largely concentrated on culture wars until recently, leaving economic issues on the margins. This likely betrays another reason for their relatively poor elections performance this year. EKRE went in talking about coping and the economy, topics the general public did not hold to be its strong suits at the time.

Can we see improvement on the horizon? I have not heard of EKRE's success in recruiting well-known economics experts or entrepreneurs, or indeed having made improving their relative know-how a strategic priority to start with.

Neither Reform nor Isamaa have ever struggled to find allies for the purposes of forming coalitions, while EKRE's position has only become weaker in these terms since the elections [in March of this year]. Their recent hopes of Isamaa under Helir-Valdor Seeder and the Center Party under Jüri Ratas joining them for a government have been all but dashed since the two parties elected new leaders. How does one imagine ruling Estonia if no other political party sees it as a strategic or ideological partner?

Therefore, provided EKRE will not succeed in painting itself as the most credible defense against the Russia threat, notably improving its economic expertise and establishing permanent allies among other parties, their hopes of becoming a leading political force will remain thin. Both in terms of the next general elections and beyond. The Reform Party has ticked all three boxes, with Isamaa on course to do the same. This is why it is little wonder that Estonia's national conservatives are excelling under Urmas Reinsalu's Isamaa rather than the Helmes' EKRE today.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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