Six leading Center Party MPs have quit the party, according to public data available from the commercial register (Äriregister).
The six include former ministers Tanel Kiik and Jaak Aab (pictured below), who had said Thursday they were certainly considering leaving Center.
Former party secretary general Andre Hanimägi, veteran MP Enn Eesmaa, Kersti Sarapuu, who has been an MP across three Riigikogu compositions, and former Valga mayor Ester Karuse complete the six, according to data on the commercial register.
Aab and Kiik are to join the Social Democrats (SDE), the party they had been linked with on Thursday, and will be joined by Karuse and Hanimägi.
Eesmaa and Sarapuu have not announced that they will be joining any other party at this point in time.
Aab, Kiik and three of the others named above (Kersti Sarapuu was absent) gave a press conference starting from 11 a.m. to around 11.45 a.m. Friday, while SDE leader Lauri Läänemets and MP Jevgeni Ossinovski were in attendance (see gallery).
Kiik reiterates line taken on Thursday
At that press conference, Tanel Kiik reiterated what he had told ERR on Thursday, ie. that the Center Party has not been working as a unified team within the 100 days since Mihhail Kõlvart became party leader, adding a power struggle between the various Center Party regional chapters, a disregard for one another at board level, and the values issues relating to Yana Toom's provision of financial help to pro-Russia activists, some of them expelled from Estonia, and their legal battles.
Kiik said "Immediately after the extraordinary congress [at which Kõlvart was elected over Kiik, in mid-September], I had no plans to leave the Center Party. This feeling of wanting to leave developed over time. I clearly gave the new management a chance."
Kiik stressed that none of the six latest departing MPs are playing the nationality card against Kõlvart, as Kõlvart had claimed at a press conference on Thursday. "The criticisms lie elsewhere, they are in the content. A man is defined by his actions, not what nationality he is," Kiik went on.
Kõlvart was born in Kazakhstan to an Estonian father and ethnic Korean/Chinese mother, moving with them to Estonia as a child.
Kiik affirmed that his choice to join SDE was overwhelmingly due to a unity of worldview.
"I pledge that the principles and values for which my voters gave me the Riigikogu mandate remain intact. I am convinced that I can stand up for the interests of my voters better now within the ranks of SDE, than I could have done by remaining in the Center Party," Kiik added.
Kiik also noted that he and the other five MPs leaving with him started considering this, more seriously, and together with one another, from mid-December.
Aab: We failed to get sufficient support from Kõlvart
Jaak Aab added that he was also pushed to leave by the party chair's lack of activity in wider politics and an apparent apathy from some quarters towards issues facing Estonia.
Aab said: "We have tried to be active in national politics, but have not received the necessary support from the current chair and management. It can be felt that a certain component of the board, and also of the Riigikogu faction, are not at all interested in issues concerning this country."
Aab added that Kõlvart's political statements do not get sufficient coverage, meaning he is not on an equal footing with the other five party leaders.
Aab, 63, said that he wants to remain in politics for the next decade, but that he sees no scope for that to take place with the Center Party.
Eesmaa, Hanimägi and Karuse also spoke at press conference
Also appearing at Friday morning's press conference, Ester Karuse said her faith in Center's team spirit had waned after the September congress, adding that joining SDE was the most logical alternative for her in standing up for the issues in Southeast Estonia.
Andre Hanimägi concurred that the Center Party and its team cannot move forward in unison, as things are. Since four of the six MPs leaving Center will join SDE, including Hanimägi, as a coalition party this will provide the necessary balance within the current Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition.
At the time of writing, Center has now lost five MPs to the coalition (ie. to SDE and to Reform), and two to the opposition (to Isamaa).
Enn Eesmaa, 77, a former Riigikogu deputy speaker who has served across several Riigikogu compositions as an MP, said he will not be joining another political party.
He pledged to continue formulating his views and voting as an independent member of the Riigikogu.
Eesmaa said: "I will continue to work and fulfill my duties on the Riigikogu committees I currently sit on, and also with the Baltic Assembly and as chair of the Estonia-Lithuania parliamentary group."
He also criticized what he saw as Kõlvart's lack of grasp on the situation in the party.
Tanel Kiik said that Kersti Sarapuu, who did not take part in the press conference, will not join any political party for the time being.
In addition to grass-roots Center members leaving the paryt, several high-profile politicians had already left since the election of Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart as party leader, in September last year.
Up until that point, a balance had been more or less maintained between what have become known as the Estonian wing of the party and the Russian wing; this dynamic had already come under fresh scrutiny after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, from February 2022, while Center's sole MEP, Yana Toom, has been providing legal aid to pro-Russia activists, some of whom have been expelled from Estonia.
The party's number of Riigikogu seats fell from 26 to 16 at the March 2023 general election. With two MPs leaving in the fall to join Isamaa (Jaanus Kariland and Tõnis Mölder), along with Maria Jufereva-Skuratovski, who left to join the Reform Party, plus the latest six departures, Center's number of mandates will have more than halved even on that total, to seven seats – making it the smallest party by Riigikogu representation.
Those seven are: Vadim Belobrovtsev, Andrei Korobeinik, Aleksei Jevgrafov, Anastassia Kovalenko-Kõlvart, Lauri Laats, Aleksandr Chaplõgin and, provisionally at least, Jüri Ratas.
Vote tally the departing MPs brought to Center at the Riigikogu elections in March 2023:
- Tanel Kiik: 2,070
- Ester Karuse: 1,677
- Jaak Aab: 1,562
- Enn Eesmaa: 774
- Andre Hanimägi: 466
- Kersti Sarapuu: 685
Also leaving Center for SDE is Kätlin Pääro, who had headed up Center's Riigikogu faction office, and is a former deputy head of the prime minister's office.
Editor's note: This story is developing and is subject to updates.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Urmet Kook, Aleksander Krjukov