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Opinion digest: Why Reform needs to elect Kaja Kallas chairwoman

Outgoing Reform chairman Hanno Pevkur, Kaja Kallas, Kristen Michal in 2018.
Outgoing Reform chairman Hanno Pevkur, Kaja Kallas, Kristen Michal in 2018. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Reform Party member and former MP Jaanus Rahumägi wrote in a piece for weekly Eesti Ekspress published on Wednesday that he sees backing Kaja Kallas as the party's first chairwoman as the only way to get the party out of its current infighting, and that Pevkur's chairmanship has been under attack from the moment he was elected.

In his piece in Ekspress, Rahumägi wrote that he had asked a prominent party member in September 2016, just months before Taavi Rõivas' government failed, why they needed to be in power at all, seeing as they weren't doing anything with it.

"I got a philosophical shrug and was told that plenty of people have jobs because of it. That's it. This isn't theory — this is real life," Rahumägi wrote.

17 years in power spoiled the party

As Rahumägi put it, being in power means Riigikogu mandates; local council mandates; ministries; advisers to be hired, officials; appointments to state companies' supervisory boards. These positions come with salaries, prestige, international recognition, expenses accounts, and trips paid for by the taxpayer.

And, of course, the small group that controls it all and assigns these positions to people wields a lot of power, Rahumägi wrote.

The beginning of the end of Taavi Rõivas' government was a dispute in Reform's coalition with IRL and the Social Democrats (SDE) concerning appointments to state companies' supervisory boards; the junior coalition partners threatened to remove their own appointees if Reform wouldn't agree to a more transparent and independent appointment procedure.

Reform refused to agree to this and instead played for time, which in turn created the opening needed for those who wanted the government to fail to arrange for a vote of no confidence against the prime minister.

Failure to hold on to power a great shock

Looking back at the events that have since unfolded in the party, Rahumägi wrote that being in power worked particularly well for all those who didn't know anything else and couldn't do anything else. The arrogant stance this created — running things without personal responsibility and without taking personal risks — worked to screen out the interests of the state and the people.

In time, staying in power became the only thing anyone concentrated on. The government's fall came as a great shock to the generation in the party that had never known anything else, Rahumägi wrote. Calls for Rõivas' replacement as party chairman followed almost immediately.

After the Reform government fell, the party, previously used to taking care of internal issues quietly, could no longer continue operating under the same system. Considering the situation the party was in, Rahumägi said he was surprised to hear that it was now "Kristen's turn," and that making former minister of finance Kristen Michal the next chairman was a done deal already.

Then Hanno Pevkur decided to run anyway. The party's back room at that point had lost its sense of reality: Pevkur was elected with the support of two thirds of Reform members. "Like the rest of Estonia, the party wanted real change," Rahumägi wrote.

Pevkur under attack from the beginning

When the reality of the party's fall finally sunk in, powerful members started to vent their frustrations on the new chairman, treating him as though it had been his fault that the party was now in opposition, Rahumägi wrote, instead of seeing reality for what it was: Pevkur's election against the wishes of the party's core decision-makers was the result of a succession of mistakes they had made much earlier.

As Rahumägi pointed out, the Reform Party was accused of a lack of vision long before Rõivas' government fell. The narrative that Reform won the last three parliamentary elections and hence was doing a good job was nothing but window dressing, as winning elections should really mean actually doing something, he added.

With intrigue now becoming part of Reform's internal culture, plenty of people who had kept quiet for 17 years could now no longer be relied on to toe the party line, Rahumägi added. In the ensuing infighting, Pevkur's opponents have done what they can to make him look weak — whatever he attempts, the party's parliamentary group refuses to follow him.

Solution: Look beyond personal interest, elect Kaja Kallas

According to Rahumägi, the current state of the Reform Party is due to two main factors. One is that, to many, finding themselves in opposition after 17 years in power is strange, demotivating, and unexpected. And the other is that the former hard core of the party, the back room, will never forgive those who pushed them out of power: plenty of its key people have come to see the Reform Party as their private property.

Hence Siim Kallas' statement that the party needs new leadership didn't come as a surprise to anyone, Rahumägi wrote. Pevkur's response, he found, was adequate. The party needs to elect a new leader as soon as possible.

But even with a new leader, the party only has a chance if its members look beyond personal gain, and if it can come up with new ideas and narratives that work to the good of the country and the voters, Rahumägi wrote.

Estonia is ready for its first woman prime minister, which is why in the interest of both the country as well as peace in the party, Reform's members need to elect Kaja Kallas their first chairwoman, he added.


Read Jaanus Rahumägi's piece here (link in Estonian).

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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