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Internal tensions in Social Democratic Party as Saar challenges Ossinovski

Minister of Culture Indrek Saar (SDE).
Minister of Culture Indrek Saar (SDE). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

A party leadership meeting some two weeks ago apparently got emotional as Minister of Culture Indrek Saar challenged party chairman and Minister of Health and Labour Jevgeni Ossinovski. While its most important personalities say they appreciate the party's open culture and its ability to handle things internally, the debates about its future continue.

According to weekly Eesti Ekspress, internal tensions in the Social Democratic Party (SDE) flared up in a meeting of the party's leadership and its parliamentary group on 29 June when Indrek Saar openly challenged party chairman Jevgeni Ossinovski.

Tensions are high in the party because of its recently dismal ratings, with voter support at currently 9%. The party's 15 parliamentary mandates are in danger, and to those of its Riigikogu members facing reelection in Estonia's rural areas next March, the liberal stance of the party's chairman and those close to him is a serious liability.

Like most of Estonia's political parties, the SDE is the product of a series of mergers that brought together different groups and factions, and didn't develop along an ideological line. Many of its members and also its political personalities are far away from classically social democratic ideology.

Saar challenges party chairman Ossinovski

In the meeting in question, things got emotional as Saar demanded Ossinovski's replacement as chairman. Though Eesti Ekspress' main source seems to be Minister of Entrepreneurship and IT Urve Palo, the paper quoted Saar as saying that he is "a great fan of the social democratic world view" and "ready to take on the responsibility" of party chairman.

Indrek Saar has been in professional politics since 2007, when he was first elected a member of the Riigikogu. He was reelected in 2011 as well as 2015 and became minister of culture in Taavi Rõivas' Reform-led government that same year. Saar is originally an actor.

Palo, who is a member of the party's leadership and an important backer of its current course, didn't have anything flattering to say about him: "Indrek has his strengths, but he wouldn't work as the leader of the Social Democrats," Palo said.

"If I have to imagine him at all as a party leader, I think he would work better with EKRE (the Conservative People's Party; ed.). The Social Democrats' voters on average are more educated and more intelligent, and the party's leader needs to meet these expectations," she added

Former chairman appreciates SDE's ability to work things out internally

Former party chairman and current Minister of Foreign Affairs Sven Mikser told ERR on Tuesday that Saar's courage to address difficult issues deserves credit.

Mikser added that as a former party chairman he can appreciate the fact that the debate was kept an internal matter, and that Saar didn't address his concerns in the media, as is the modus operandi of most other parties whenever internal trouble is ahead.

"That we have people who are affected by what has been going on with their party, and that they are ready to grab the bull by the horn, that's one of the party's strengths," Mikser said. "I would be worried if there were no people ready to lead the party. This healthy and strong internal competition is an extraordinarily good thing," he added.

At the same time, the party isn't currently in a situation where finding a new chairman is needed. "If we find actual candidates, I'll certainly find someone to support, too," he said.

Mikser himself was ousted as party chairman in 2015 after the SDE dropped from 19 to 15 Riigikogu mandates in that year's parliamentary elections.

Ossinovski: Instead of infighting, party should focus on elections

Party chairman Jevgeni Ossinovski meanwhile cautioned that the SDE should be focusing on the coming elections in March 2019. The party is going through difficult times, but he has no doubt that its ability to settle these matters would prevail, Ossinovski said.

"The last six months certainly haven't been easy, and we've had serious discussions in the party how to get out of our current low," Ossinovski told ERR on Tuesday. "And of course we've also asked ourselves whether or not to bring new people into the leadership."

The party discussed this exact issue in great detail in its meeting of 29 June, he added. "Though there were other opinions as well, most found that we have to work to increase support for the Social Democrats among voters, and not waste our energy on sizing each other up."

Ossinovski agrees with Mikser that the party's open debate culture and its ability to handle issues internally are an important trait. "We're an open and democratic party. As chairman, I'm always happy to have constructive criticism, because that makes it possible to make decisions that eventually help us get a better result as a team," he said.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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