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Opinion digest: Reform Party cornered, Kaja Kallas best way out

Everyone agrees Kaja Kallas has the best chances to be elected chairwoman of the Reform Party — if she decides to run.
Everyone agrees Kaja Kallas has the best chances to be elected chairwoman of the Reform Party — if she decides to run. Source: (ERR/Ülo Josing)

Reactions to Reform Party chairman Hanno Pevkur's decision to back Kaja Kallas in the next internal elections in the party have been mixed, though there is one thing everybody seems to agree on: she has been far enough away from Estonian politics for a long enough time to make her a choice a lot of people can live with.

Kallas' spotless reputation to make the difference

Former chairman of the Social Democrats and current minister of foreign affairs, Sven Mikser, said on Monday that after Pevkur's announcement the only thing that stood between Kallas and the party's top position were her own doubts.

That Pevkur's days as party leader are numbered was clear as soon as Postimees reported that the Kallases were meeting with Michal to discuss a leadership change, Mikser said.

Pevkur had been elected chairman in January this year only by virtue of being less tainted than his competitor, Kristen Michal, who was the main suspect in the Reform Party's 2012 financing scandal. But if Pevkur had to stand for election against Kaja Kallas and her spotless record, he would surely lose, Mikser suggested.

"At this point, the planets are all aligned against Pevkur," Mikser said. None of the power brokers in the party were in agreement how to move on, but they could probably agree on Kaja Kallas as the lesser evil, he added.

The party's power brokers wanted the best-possible election result in 2019, and Kallas made a good front for that. At the same time, she herself likely has no illusions about the situation, Mikser said.

"She'll remember that the last time a Kallas came here from Brussels to take over the party, he hurried back after about 72 hours," Mikser said, referring to Siim Kallas' failed attempt to swap positions with Andrus Ansip in 2014.

Tactically, Pevkur's move to call for internal elections to be held in January rather than in summer next year cut the time short for Kaja Kallas to decide, and Pevkur could be hoping that she might not be able to make up her mind in such a short time, Mikser speculated.

Pevkur taking fall for party

Political analyst Tõnis Saarts of Tallinn University said earlier this week that Pevkur's decision to back Kaja Kallas in extraordinary party elections may well be based on his lacking support in the party's leadership.

He could probably tell that they wouldn't support internal elections in January, and hence decided to make way for Kaja Kallas for the good of the party.

According to Saarts, Pevkur understands perfectly that even if he managed to beat Kallas in the next party elections, in-fighting in the party would continue throughout the election campaign, and negatively affect the outcome. His decision to step aside left his reputation intact for now, and a few years from now Pevkur might attempt a comeback.

Though Saarts also cautioned that he wouldn't say Kaja Kallas is as good as elected, and the next party gathering just a formality, as there is still the chance that another prominent party member might enter the race, for example Urmas Paet or Jürgen Ligi.

Reform's weakness a danger to Estonia

Political commentator Ahto Lobjakas wrote in a recent piece for daily Postimees that the ongoing vendettas inside the Reform Party make it difficult for potential contenders to throw their hat into the ring. So long as Kristen Michal and his supporters in the party stood ready to pull the rug out from under anyone they don't accept, the party couldn't hope to have a strong and working leadership.

As Lobjakas wrote, after Siim Kallas' attempt failed in 2014 to return to Estonian politics as Reform Party chairman and prime minister, Ansip asked former minister of foreign affairs and now MEP Urmas Paet (Reform/ALDE) to take over instead. Paet declined, and Taavi Rõivas followed.

Jürgen Ligi, though one of Reform's strongest characters, has been in the shadow of the party's for too long; and Michal himself still has the same problem as he did several years ago, namely that depending on the situation he finds himself in, either the party members themselves or then the Estonian voters refuse to back him to a sufficient extent.

What is turning the party into an actual threat to the state, Lobjakas wrote, is the fact that in the past it always drew its strength from the weakness of others. Now that Savisaar as Reform's great bogeyman is gone, and Estonia has not gone to hell despite the Center Party leading the government, there is the temptation to let the ethnic divide between Estonian and Russian speakers escalate, as the party's Tallinn campaign for this year's local election showed. Kristen Michal's election campaign flirt with the hard-right Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE) points in the same direction.

Instead of acting as the pacifying and stabilizing center of Estonian politics, the party has been moving closer to more extreme positions. This is the very politics that is likely to see the party lose the 2019 elections, Lobjakas wrote.

He pointed to a statement made by Siim Kallas in a recent interview with ERR: that winning the 2019 Riigikogu elections is essential for the party's survival. But: "A weak party can't manage in opposition, and a cornered party is a danger to society," Lobjakas warned.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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