Tanel Kiik, a former health minister, is "seriously considering" quitting the opposition Center Party in order to join the coalition Social Democrats (SDE). Apparently, Jaak Aab is also mulling whether to quit Center.
Kiik is Center's chief whip at the Riigikogu. The party's vice-chair, Jaak Aab, another former minister, is also considering leaving Center.
Center itself had said Thursday it believes the recent exodus of members was now over.
Kiik told ERR Thursday that: "Over 100 days have passed since the Center Party extraordinary congress was held," referring to September's extended party meeting which saw Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart elected party leader, over Kiik, the only other candidate.
"This period of time has demonstrated that the party has not started to work as a unified team," Kiik went on.
"We can see this both at the discussions at party board level, and in what is happening in the regions, while we also inevitably see this happening in the debate that took place specifically in the context of Yana Toom's activities," Kiik went on.
Toom is Center's sole MEP, and recently hit controversy over reports that she had helped cover legal costs for pro-Kremlin activists expelled from Estonia directly as a result of their actions, including activist Zoja Paljamar whose residence permit the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) revoked in June last year.
Kiik told ERR that he has repeatedly raised this latter matter at board level, to no avail. "This kind of action, supporting anti-state activists in the context of legal aid, is right neither in form or context, yet, so far, unfortunately, the party has not formulated a single, clear position on this."
"What remains is the position held by myself and Jüri Ratas, and several other like-minded people, ranged against the opposing view of Yana Toom and her supporters, with regard to this political activity," Kiik went on.
Former prime minister Jüri Ratas was replaced by Mihhail Kõlvart as Center leader in September, after announcing he would not be seeking re-election at the end of his term. Kiik is in effect Ratas' protégé, having been his chef de cabinet prior to becoming health minister for the first time, in 2019.
Kiik added that: "All things of this nature exert their impact. It can be observed that a single understanding of the party's political course and, one might say, on relatively large matters of values, has not crystallized, all in the midst of Russia's war on Ukraine. For this reason, many Center Party members are nowadays seriously thinking about what their political future might be. I'm among those weighing in on the matter, there's no denying that," he continued.
"I will announce my decisions and my choices, together with those of alike mind, when they are finally made, but that time is certainly not far off," he said.
As regards potentially joining SDE, whose liberal worldview would fit with Kiik's as expressed on some issues while in office as health minister, he said: : "My political views and my worldview surely do not depend on which party I belong to, but of course when making my party choices I have always been grounded in the principle that a party must match with my principles and worldview."
Center as a whole could be described as somewhat populist in nature and with members exhibiting a range of views on social issues, for instance.
Jaak Aab: I don't want to just idle
Jaak Aab, a former regional affairs minister, is also considering leaving the Center Party, and also for SDE. Aab, who returned from a trip abroad Thursday afternoon, told ERR that he is not refuting rumors he's been in talks with SDE.
"The main reason is the question of what is my motivation to continue in Center? /.../ Unfortunately, I cannot see these people coming together to form a united team. Or that we could achieve anything meaningful in Estonian politics in the short or long term. And since I don't wish to just idle, I will have to weigh my opportunities of how to do that myself," Aab said.
Aab has been a member of Center since September 12, 1994 and served as an MP and minister. Aab was among Kiik's closest allies when the latter ran for Center chairman.
He admits that he does not wish to decide alone, but rather as part of the team that backed Kiik for the in-house election.
"The team is disappointed. We try to keep one another in the loop and share information. I would prefer to decide as a team," the politician said, adding that talks with SDE have been concrete and that final decisions will be made known Thursday or Friday.
SDE leader: I have not seen applications to join
Lauri Läänemets, chairman of the Social Democratic Party, said at the government press conference Thursday that he has not seen an application to join the party from Kiik.
"There has been much speculation in terms of whether and who among centrists has decided to switch parties, while it's still too soon to comment. I have no information of requests to join," Läänemets remarked.
"But I can say that the Social Democrats are glad and we remain open to all MPs, local politicians or rank and file members of Center who might be thinking about joining the party, provided they share our worldview. And I think there is ideological common ground. I'm saying 'yes' to people who wish to join, but I'm holding no membership applications in my hand and the decision of whether to join is up to them," Läänemets added.
Many prominent figures have left Center in wake of Kõlvart election
Mayor Kõlvart was elected Center leader on September 10 by 543 votes to 489 over Tanel Kiik.
This has exerted a polarizing effect in that Mayor Kõlvart is identified with the "Russian" wing of the party, a party which had long been led by Estonians (Kõlvart's father was Estonian), starting with co-founder Edgar Savisaar.
This and the fact that the party had a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party, an agreement which the party says has lapsed, came under scrutiny in particular with Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine from February 2022.
Center had traditionally drawn much of its bedrock support in Tallinn and in Ida-Viru County in particular, but in the latter case, the party had seen a gradual decline of support from that demographic, going back at least as far as 2019.
High-profile casualties in the aftermath of Kõlvart's ascension to leader include former minister and former Tallinn mayor Taavi Aas, Rakvere Mayor Triin Varek, former environment minister Tõnis Mölder, and former chief whip Jaanus Karilaid.
Both Mölder and Karilaid joined opposition party Isamaa immediately after leaving Center.
Additionally, Center MP Maria Jufereva-Skuratovski quit Center to join the Reform Party, the largest coalition party, in mid-November.
Center picked up 15.3 percent of support when it mattered, ie. a the March 2023 Riigikogu elections, bringing it 16 seats, significantly down on the 26 it had won at the 2019 elections.
With the aforementioned departures, were Kiik and Aab to leave the party, it would be down to 11 MPs and would be level with SDE, which currently has nine MPs according to the Riigikogu website.
This would also further strengthen the Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition's majority, which was at 60 out of 101 seats at the Riigikogu when it entered office in April.
Kiik had left Center for SDE once before in his political career
In fact, Tanel Kiik has once before left Center for SDE, which he did back in 2009, having joined Center in 2007. In 2009, just ahead of the local elections in the fall of that year, Kiik cited a litany of Center-related woes including a "despotic management style" and a lack of internal criticism over its campaigning. At this time, Edgar Savisaar (1950-2022) was party chair.
Kiik was only an SDE member for a few months, from November 2009 to March 2010. After a period of being unaffiliated, he rejoined Center in March 2018, a year before the 2019 election and while Jüri Ratas was both party chair and prime minister.
The article was updated to add comments from Jaak Aab and Lauri Läänemets.
Editor: Aleksander Krjukov, Urmet Kook, Andrew Whyte, Marcus Turovski