Kristen Michal's announcement that the Reform Party's platform for the Tallinn election will call for Estonian-language instruction starting in kindergarten galvanizes the opposition, puts IRL in an impossible place, and may well contribute to setting his party up for success in the long run.
Kristen Michal, the Reform Party's likely candidate for mayor of Tallinn, announced on Wednesday that his party’s platform for the upcoming local elections in Tallinn would include a call to extend Estonian-language instruction to all levels of the education system — and have it begin in kindergarten already.
The government’s reaction came in the form of a statement by Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps (Center), who said that the Reform Party’s proposal was "not credible." In 17 years in government, the party had had ample time to do something to the effect, but had never seriously dealt with the issue of education, Reps said.
Michal’s announcement was followed on Thursday by statements out of both the Free Party and the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) that they supported the move. All signs now point to a closing of the ranks of all three opposition parties in the matter.
The move is very clever. No national-conservative party can risk going against it without alienating its voter base, while the government coalition, depending on the bulk of the Center Party, can’t alienate the latter’s Russian-speaking voter base.
The usual sides, you would guess, with one small difference: Michal’s announcement puts one of the coalition parties on the spot. The Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL), one of the great reforming forces of the 1990s and the self-declared keepers of the Estonian nation, have recently taken loss after loss, even dropping below the 5-percent threshold in the latest party ratings.
The call for mostly Estonian-language instruction at all levels is something IRL has to support if it doesn’t want to go against more than two decades of a clear line in all matters concerning integration. This puts it at odds with the prime minister’s party, who cannot support the idea.
If IRL should try and stay out of the debate, which at this point seems to be its initial reaction, it will lose even more authority in the topical area of national conservatism and Estonian language and culture. This again would cost the party in the local polls later this year, and put it in a disadvantaged position looking ahead to the 2019 parliamentary election.
Should IRL express its full-throated support of Michal’s proposal, this would doubtlessly damage the coalition, though at this point all of its members are likely desperate enough to arrange themselves with a less than pleasant situation. Still, even if the coalition survives this kind of disagreement, it makes a common element of future election campaigns even less likely than it already is.
With IRL’s continued downfall, the Reform Party is left as the only one on the political center-right that appeals to Estonian voters, is organized, experienced in government, has been reasonably successful, and most of all is moderate enough to appeal to a broader voter group.
Which is all it needs in the 2019 parliamentary election, by which time Kristen Michal could be its most obvious choice for chairman, and prime minister if they win them.
With his proposal, Michal galvanizes the opposition, pits it against the Center Party and the Social Democrats where both will have a hard time defending their political course, and puts IRL in a near impossible position. He is playing the long game, and he is doing it well.
Editor: Aili Vahtla