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Experts: Center Party departures likely to lead to further marginalization

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

The recent wave of Riigikgu MPs leaving the Center Party demonstrates that this party, in opposition, may become further marginalized, though the development is unlikely to bring any seismic shifts in the political landscape, some political experts say.

The Center Party has in the space of a year gone from being the second-largest party by Riigikogu seats, at 26 this time last year, to the smallest, with the tally now being seven after Friday's departure.

Center picked up 16 seats at the March 2023 Riigikogu election, but with six of its MPs leaving, four of the for the Social Democrats (SDE) on Friday, added to the three that left in the autumn (for Isamaa and Reform), the figure is now as noted seven seats.

"This is certainly the smallest faction in the Riigikogu. So this talk of marginalization certainly does not come from nowhere," Tarmo Jüristo, head of NGO the Liberal Citizen Foundation (SALK), told ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK).

That marginalization politically relates to an apparent marginalization of Estonian Center-voters following the election of Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart as party leader, in September last year.

The loss of support and Riigikogu seats has implications for both the European elections taking place this June, and the next local government elections, in October 2025.

The latter elections are particularly significant since Center has long been the dominant party in Tallinn, the largest municipality in the country.

Even at the last local elections, in October 2021, the party lost its overall majority and had to enter into coalition with SDE.

Tarmo Jüristo noted the 2025 local elections may thus prove tough for Center, in the capital at least.

While the six MPs who announced they were leaving could be seen as a continuation of the earlier departures, Friday's events nonetheless represent a pivotal moment for Center, one which could spell marginalization, political analyst Tõnis Saarts told AK.

Saarts said: "It could be observed that it will become more of a 'Russian party,' that is, a party with a voter base which has Russian as their mother tongue, plus also a highly Tallinn-centric party."

Center had long derived plenty of support from the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia, but this had dwindled in recent years, particularly in Northeastern Estonia.

"We know that nationality- and municipality-based parties like this tend to belong more to the category of niche politics," Saarts went on.

Even as recently as the October 2021 local elections, Center, at the time led by former prime minister Jüri Ratas, had enjoyed plenty of support from Estonians, Saarts noted – even in Tallinn and even with the net result being Mihhail Kõlvart returned as mayor.

In order for the Center Party to recoup that status as a party of the people, it will need to undergo major changes once again, Saarts continued.

This means it must "once again find one of its most important strengths, which I think has been lost, or is clearly about to be lost at present, ie. that it can unite the interests of both Estonians and Russian-speaking people in Estonia."

Those MPs who have left, particularly the four who are joining SDE (including two former ministers, Tanel Kiik and Jaak Aab), can bring their new party a better vote tally in 2025, Saarts noted.

"This may also be the case in the European Parliament elections, if it should transpire that, for example, Jüri Ratas also joins SDE," Saarts continued.

Ratas, who stepped down as leader of Center in September and was replaced by Kõlvart after the latter won the party congress run-off vote against Kiik, is at the time of writing still a Center Party MP.

Tarmo Jüristo opined that even now, however, the decline of Center will not radically upend the current political picture, particularly at national level (Center is in opposition, SDE in coalition).

Tarmo Jüristo. Source: Raadio 2

"There are three years until the [next Riigikogu] elections. As things stand now, I don't see that anyone in the coalition would have much interest in [the coalition not lasting through until then."

The Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition already had 60 seats at the 101-seat Riigikogu on entering office; the number of SDE MPs is set to rise by four, while one former Center MP, Maria Jufereva-Skuratovski, already joined Reform in the fall.

Similarly, the Center-SDE coalition in Tallinn is likely to hold firm, Jüristo said.

While SDE could in theory pull the plug on this, given the math it would be difficult to find and alternative to being in office with Center; this would entail a five-party rainbow alliance which would include SDE's sworn political enemy, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), an alignment which Jüristo said would be "quite problematic."

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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