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Turbulent year ahead as Reform and Center get ready for election campaign

Toomas Sildam.
Toomas Sildam. Source: (Siim Lõvi /ERR)

The campaign leading up to the March 2019 Riigikogu elections will be turbulent. For the first time the Reform Party and the Center Party are both contenders for the government's leadership, and the fate of the smaller parties is all but certain, writes ERR's Toomas Sildam.

This time the parliamentary elections are going to be different.

In 2011 and 2015 they were all about the gap between the Reform Party and the Center Party, but the question who would end up running the country didn't depend on the outcome, as it was clear that the prime minister could only come out of the Reform Party, never mind the eventual distribution of mandates in the Riigikogu.

The Center Party became unacceptable as a partner in government in late 2010. A scandal broke about then-chairman Edgar Savisaar's attempt to get funding for the party from the director of the Russian state railway company, who in turn is closely connected to the Kremlin. After this happened, even if Center had won the elections no other party would have been ready to form a government with them, as such a step would have amounted to political suicide.

The Center Party has won two parliamentary elections. In 1999 they got 28 mandates in the Riigikogu, but President Lennart Meri gave the task to form a government to Pro Patria leader Mart Laar, who at the time already had a coalition agreement with the Reform Party and the Moderates.

In 2003 they got 28 mandates, exactly as many as then-newcomer Res Publica, who later merged with Pro Patria to form IRL. The Center Party was 0.8 percent ahead of Res Publica in terms of votes, but the government was eventually formed by Res Publica's Juhan Parts, who entered into a coalition with the Reform Party and the now defunct People's Union (Rahvaliit).

That coalition lasted just two years. In 2005 Andrus Ansip (Reform) replaced Juhan Parts, and the Reform Party's 11 years at the top began. Reform won the 2007, 2011, and 2015 elections.

The party's winning streak ended in 2016, when the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) and the Social Democrats pushed Reform into opposition and brought in the Center Party to lead the government. Center itself had just seen a dramatic coup that ousted long-time chairman Edgar Savisaar and replaced him with Jüri Ratas. The party became politically acceptable again, and Ratas became prime minister.

All of this means that we have a true clash of the Titans waiting in the 2019 elections, as for the first time both the big political parties are facing off in the race for government.

It is very likely that the winner of the elections will get to form a government, be it Kaja Kallas (Reform) or Jüri Ratas (Center). That it could be either means that the stakes are substantially higher than in previous elections. The Center Party will aim for more than their present 27 mandates, and the Reform Party would like to at least repeat their 2011 success that got them 33 mandates, three more than they have now.

But then what?

There is no doubt that Center and Reform together would have a very strong majority in parliament. Outgoing Reform chairman Hanno Pevkur has referred to this as a grand coalition. But that they could have such a majority doesn't necessarily mean they'll form a government together.

It seems fitting here to mention IRL chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder, who told ERR not long ago that personal differences generally outweigh political considerations. At the moment the Reform Party seems angry enough to make one think that the world will end on Mar. 3 next year, while the real battle for the next coalition will begin only after the election's results are in. And if by then the atmosphere between the two big contenders is sufficiently poisonous, other partners will have to be found.

But who, that is the question. Who could be junior partner to Reform or Center? Not the Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE), at least not as a first choice, as they are a little too prehistoric in their views for the supporters of either one of the big parties. The Free Party's fate isn't clear yet, and there is no telling how they will come out of the election. IRL and the Social Democrats would likely be acceptable to both Reform and Center, but the question who they would prefer is more difficult to answer.

And anyway, how the two current junior partners will do in the elections is extremely difficult to predict. The Social Democrats, suffering from identity and reputation issues, currently hold 15 mandates. Chairman Jevgeni Ossinovski has the ambitious aim to raise this number by five, which is something plenty of his own fellow party members are finding rather hard to believe.

IRL, forever in the doldrums in the monthly party ratings and currently somewhere close to the 5-percent election threshold, still hold 12 mandates in the Riigikogu. They are not making any predictions, but don't seem to doubt that they'll make it into parliament again.

If both should fail and get substantially fewer mandates than they have now, this would likely keep them out of government, as Center or Reform will find a coalition of four too uncomfortable and too shaky. Here the grand coalition would make more sense.

But as mentioned before, we're still a year and an election away from the next coalition negotiations. Until then we'll see plenty of fighting and little agreement, promises by the dozen ranging from higher pensions to Estonian-language instruction in kindergartens, pushing in and pushing others out, honest grimaces and fake smiles. To sum up, we are looking at a politically turbulent year, with the two big parties clashing in dead earnest for the first time.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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