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Reform leadership in two camps on appropriateness of Ansip public criticism

Andrus Ansip and Kaja Kallas (photo taken on European elections night 2019).
Andrus Ansip and Kaja Kallas (photo taken on European elections night 2019). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

While the board of the ruling Reform Party has yet to meet to discuss criticism from one of the party's MEPs directed at Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, senior party members ERR has spoken two are split into two camps on whether the matter should have been aired publicly, or discussed internally within the party first.

Andrus Ansip MEP said earlier this week that Kaja Kallas should step down as Reform's leader, and consequently as prime minister.

Ansip, who was prime minister 2005 to 2014, said that the leader's low rating, that of the Reform Party itself, and of the coalition as a whole, presented a "security risk," adding that the party's way of conducting politics required an overhaul.

ERR took a vox pop of several leading Reform Party members, as follows.

Reform members who would prefer the matter had stayed within the party

Minister of Defense and deputy chairman of Reform Hanno Pevkur says he would prefer it if the party's members would first settle their internal disputes between them.

Pevkur said: "Generally speaking, it is still the case that if there are internal quarrels or internal announcements, this will never do the party any good. In fact, such statements should still be debated between members first, so then the party can emerge stronger."

Pevkur added that opposition party members and other opponents already perform the task of "slandering" the party effectively enough as it is.

Reform's current rating, its lowest for five years or more, is unsurprising, the minister – a former Reform leader himself – continued.

Hanno Pevkur. Source: Kirke Ert/ERR

"The rating won't remain at 16-17 percent. The party will convene at the beginning of the new year where we will discuss strategic views on how to move forward, and how head into the European Parliament elections, the local elections and, ultimately, the Riigikogu elections," more strongly, Pevkur added.

The European elections take place next June. The next local elections are due in the fall of 2025, followed by the Riigikogu elections in March 2027.

Pevkur rejected claims that Reform's low rating under Kallas' tutelage was a security risk, as claimed by Ansip, saying that Estonia's actual security situation is affected "significantly" by a range of other factors.

Another sitting minister from Reform, Signe Riisalo (social protection) said that the Ansip critique will not be allowed to dominate proceedings at the board meeting, to take place next Friday.

Signe Riisalo. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

This will instead constitute more an exchange of ideas on the current issues with the economy, the war in Ukraine, and other important themes.

Marko Mihkelson, the party's Riigikogu foreign affairs committee chair, declined to comment publicly on the saga so far. "I would rather discuss these things within the party," he said.

Former IT and foreign trade minister Andres Sutt, who served in Kallas' first administration 2021-2022, on the other hand sided with those that believe criticisms from party members should primarily be made within the party, not publicly, pointing out that Kallas had only recently been reelected as Reform chair.

Reform's chief whip at the Riigikogu, Erkki Keldo, dismissed talk of a power struggle.

"Unfortunately, Andrus has publicly criticized Kaja in the past, so there's nothing new in this," he said, adding that these matters should be discussed first at party board level, and that Ansip did not raise the issue at the last party board meeting he attended.

"If there are real concerns, these things should be discussed within the party, and not via the media," Keldo said.

Erkki Keldo Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

He also called for unity at a time when the party is going through a difficult period.

Keldo was unwilling to speculate on Ansip's motivation and whther this related to the upcoming European elections next June.

Keldo also said that it is standard practice for the sitting prime minister not to run in European elections.

Kaja Kallas was an MEP 2014-2018, returning before the end of her term to become Reform's leader, ahead of the 2019 Riigikogu election.

ERR also spoke to a more grass-roots member of the party, Kuusalu local councilor Maarja Metsak.

Metsak said: "I don't think there is anything particularly special about Ansip expressing his criticism; he has done so several times before, while within the party, there is a constant debate on a variety of topics. This in and of itself is not a problem. Perhaps, however, it would still be wiser to hold these discussions within the party, and not via the media."

Reform members who find Ansip's criticism was constructive

Former justice minister and party vice-chair Maris Lauri found that Ansip had not spoken out of turn.

His comments "reflect the feelings and sentiments of quite a lot of party members and party supporters. So, in that sense, it's a signal. You have to listen to the words of a politician of such long-standing, and on hw to take that message forward," Lauri said Friday, adding further discussion was needed.

Justice Minister Kalle Laanet said that he would not condemn Ansip for his words, and concurred with Maris Lauri's view, which "certainly reflects the opinion and feeling of different people of a major political party like Reform."

"The party is big and there are many different opinions to be found therein. But what is absolutely reasonable for any democratic party is that people there hold diverse opinions," Laanet went on.

Kalle Laanet. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Laanet also noted that Ansip was both a big hitter within and without the party, and a relatively sharp politicians, meaning he would have more leeway for expressing such opinions, in this way, than a rank-and-file member might do.

MP Aivar Sõerd said that there are certainly those in the party who share Andrus Ansip's views, meaning his criticism can be considered constructive, and will not harm the party.

"His views are known for their straightforwardness. They certainly carry weight," Sõerd said.

Not publicly in either camp

Of other Reform members approached, the party's other MEP, former foreign minister Urmas Paet said he preferred not to dive in during this quiet period of year, a sentiment also held by former finance minister Jürgen Ligi.

Minister of Climate Kristen Michal, Mayor of Tartu Urmas Klaas, former minister Urmas Kruuse and board member Irina Talviste could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Just over two years ago, Ansip had hit out at Kallas' policies on energy, at a time when electricity and natural gas prices were soaring. A month earlier, he had referred to her as a "mõisapreili," which roughly translates as being to the manor born (Mõis being the Estonian word for a Baltic German manor house, Preili an old word probably cognate with the German "Fraulein"), one of several stock characters from Estonian literature and folklore.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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