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Andrei Korobeinik: Jüri Ratas' exit will end civil war in Center Party

Andrei Korobeinik.
Andrei Korobeinik. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Jüri Ratas' last days in the ranks of the Center Party promise to be busy. The main question is how many party members will he take with him, and, of course, what will become of Center, Andrei Korobeinik writes.

Last year was turbulent for the Center Party. We came third at Riigikogu elections, which seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. While our 16 seats in the parliament were nothing to write home about, the Center Riigikogu group has now shrunk down to seven members.

While this is more than enough reason to feel down in the dumps, we should also keep in mind that those seven delegates attracted twice the votes the nine who have left did. We must also remember that several successful Center Party politicians, not least among whom is party leader Mihhail Kõlvart, gave up their Riigikogu mandate, while they aim to stay with the party and hopefully continue to perform well at elections. The Center Party remains Estonia's largest political party [in terms of membership] and still has all of its vote magnets.

Unfortunately, we are already bracing for the next hit. We will see [former party leader and prime minister] Jüri Ratas quit our ranks in the coming days, which is a great loss for several reasons.

First, because he is a very strong politician who has previously taken sixth place at parliamentary elections and put in the second best result in Center.

Second, he has spent years running the Center Party and managed to pull it out of the opposition and turn it into the ruling party in Estonia.

Thirdly, Ratas has been a strong political tactician whom few in Estonian politics have been able to match.

Unfortunately, Jüri Ratas has been engaged in talks with Center's competitors for a month and reached agreements both with the Social Democratic Party (SDE) and Isamaa. While Ratas could also top Center's list of candidates for the European Parliament elections, he is as unlikely to beat Jana Toom as Center is to take two seats at the elections.

Jüri Ratas' end-game speaks of two things: that he really is an excellent politician (it's not easy to have agreements in place with three parties), and that his change of team is now just a matter of time.

It is a painful but inevitable development. We are seeing the end of a process that started before the Center Party held its extraordinary congress (where it elected Mihhail Kõlvart as chairman ahead of Tanel Kiik – ed.). Argumentation that worked to split the party was used in the campaign, which did not end when the new chairman was elected and resulted in the losing side quitting, with Tanel Kiik at their helm.

Kiik's political skill does not match Ratas', and he changed parties just four months after running for Center chair. The flexibility of his principles raised eyebrows even among his staunchest allies. Last week, six MPs left the Center Party and its Riigikogu group, taking with them a few dozen party members. But Center still has nearly 13,000 members.

Former Centrists Tanel Kiik, Jaak Aab, Andre Hanimägi and Ester Karuse will now be supporting the policy of the Reform Party-led coalition (in which their new party SDE is a member – ed.), which includes the recent VAT hike and a looming income tax break for the wealthy.

Kiik, Aab and Hanimägi sailed into the parliament on the backs of other Centrists' votes as they did not manage to put in a strong enough result themselves. But they are not considering quitting the Riigikogu. Instead, they are explaining to their voters why they now deem it necessary to lay down a car tax and slash family benefits.

The Center Party has always fought for a more egalitarian society, while all of the current coalition's major initiatives work to increase inequality instead. It is not an easy starting point and restoring their already modest political capital will be a challenge for the newest members of the Social Democrats (but nothing in politics is impossible).

Jüri Ratas is planning to collect a lot more political dividend than Tanel Kiik did. His narrative is that Center members do not believe the party has a future, which approach could theoretically do the party the most damage, while also styling Ratas as a martyr. While members' faith in the party hasn't really gone anywhere, it doesn't matter half as much as the message being sent.

Jüri Ratas' last days in the ranks of the Center Party promise to be busy. The main question is how many party members will he take with him, and, of course, what will become of Center.

The Center Party goes through an exodus roughly every ten years. The previous ones took place in 2004 and 2012. Both times the party emerged stronger than it was going in. Just like last times, the matter will be decided by which side is more influential, the leavers or those who remain.

Tanel Kiik and Jüri Ratas are trying to weaken the Center Party by quitting its ranks. But will it work? It is very likely that it will not work. While Ratas' departure will not end in-house debate at Center, it will put an end to the party's civil war.

What happens next depends on the board. If we will not succeed in putting Center back in the premier league of Estonian politics following Ratas' departure, there will be no one else to blame.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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