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Jüri Ratas leaves Center Party to join Isamaa

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Jüri Ratas (left) with Isamaa chair Urmas Reinsalu, following Monday's announcement.
Jüri Ratas (left) with Isamaa chair Urmas Reinsalu, following Monday's announcement. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Deputy Riigikogu Speaker Jüri Ratas has announced he is leaving the Center Party, citing values differences with its leadership. He will join opposition party Isamaa.

Ratas, who was himself Center leader until last September and is a former prime minister, made the announcement on Monday, ending speculation about his political future after a wave of departures from the party.

This leaves the Center Party with six Riigikogu seats whereas a year ago it had over 20.

Speaking at a press conference Monday, Ratas said: "From today, my journey in politics with the Center Party has come to an end."

Ratas said he is leaving the party as the values of its leadership no longer coincide with his own values.

Public data available on the Commercial Register (Äriregister) shows that Ratas formally left the Center Party on Monday morning.

Ratas said he had also considered joining the Social Democrats (SDE), or even running as an independent at the European elections.

Also at Monday's press conference, Isamaa chair Urmas Reinsalu called the development very welcome news both in political and human terms.

Reinsalu said: "Jüri joining Isamaa strengthens our platform /.../ As a result, it makes viable jointly offering a better alternative to the policies from the current government."

ERR posed a question at Monday's press conference on the proposal to strip Russian citizens resident in Estonia of their right to vote in local elections.

While Isamaa supports this move, Ratas stated that he would likely not do so.

Kõlvart: Ratas leaving is a blow, but we can deal with it

Ratas had met with Center's chair, Mihhail Kõlvart, last week, Postimees' webcast reported Monday (link in Estonian).

Kõlvart told Postimees that Ratas had in fact made up his mind about leaving some time ago, and had been negotiating with two other political parties in the meantime.

"For this reason, it wasn't a big surprise to many," Kõlvart said.

"Nonetheless, the former party chair and former prime minister leaving the party is of course sad news. /.../ Now we are political competitors," the Center leader went on.

While the current trends might have been easier to deal with for Center if Ratas had stayed on board, the party can also manage without him, too, Kõlvart said.

Another former Center member, Raimond Kaljulaid – who quit back in 2019 and joined SDE, after the Center Party entered into a coalition with the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and with Isamaa – said that Ratas had, from his perspective, made a rational decision.

"The Center Party made a fatal mistake by rejecting him. Isamaa chair Reinsalu however deserves credit for successful negotiations," Kaljulaid told ERR.

Ratas, 45, had been in the party for nearly quarter of a century, joining in 2000. After being Tallinn mayor 2005-2007, he was the Center Party leader November 2016 to September 2023, and was prime minister 2016 to January 2021.

He subsequently became Riigikogu speaker, and is now one of two deputy speakers.

Following the election of Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõvart as Center chair in September, several prominent MPs including former ministers have left the party, mostly to join the Social Democrats (SDE) and Isamaa, with one joining Reform, and two others now sitting as independents.

Ratas had also said that he would not be running for the Center Party in June's European elections, specifically if the party's sole current MEP, Jana Toom, were also to run.

Speculation that he would be leaving Center followed, though until Monday Ratas had said he would "not be leaving right now."

One Center Party MP remaining in the Riigikogu, Andrei Korobeinik, identified with the Kõlvart camp, had previously written in an opinion piece for ERR that if Ratas were to leave the party, internal strife which had been on-going for many months would also come to an end.

Ratas announced that he would be joining Isamaa. Two other prominent former centrists, former environment minister Tõnis Mölder and former Riigikogu chief whip Jaanus Karilaid, joined that party back in September.

Around 35,000 votes are required to win an MEP seat.

Reinsalu did not say which position on Isamaa's electoral list Ratas might run on.

Ratas had also been traveling round Estonia and meeting with local grass-roots Center Party members in recent weeks.

Ratas also said on Monday he thought that there would still be more departures from the Center Party on the horizon.

Editor's note: This article was updated to include comments from Mihhail Kõlvart.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Krjukov, Urmet Kook.

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