Never a good deed unpunished: Centre Party clean up costing it the election

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre Party, right of photo) sees off Pope Francis on 25 September 2018. Mr. Ratas will need more than papal approval if he's to weather the storms leading up to the March 2019 elections.
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre Party, right of photo) sees off Pope Francis on 25 September 2018. Mr. Ratas will need more than papal approval if he's to weather the storms leading up to the March 2019 elections. Source: Jürgen Randma/Government Office

It is hard to imagine the Estonian political scene without the Centre Party as a major player; perhaps Isamaa/Pro Patria (who have long been in the doldrums) are the only other party seeming to be a natural, if rather decrepit piece of furniture. The 2019 elections will be make or break time for Centre, however. Its leader, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, has turned out to be a mature, likeable and seemingly competent cove. But if the seeping Russian support is not replenished with replacements from the Estonian-speaking populace, the party will find itself out of office come March.

Mr. Ratas is becoming a recognised brand internationally, whether sitting through Guy Verhofstadt's glowing encomium to Estonia recently at the European Parliament or throwing a lifeline to Theresa May when she was being blanked in Brussels, post-Brexit vote, and forging links with countries as far afield as Mali. Prime ministers come and go of course, and Estonians tend not to have much sentiment about their leaders (Lennart Meri aside), but a crack of the whip lasting longer than two and a half years could seal Ratas' standing as one of the more competent Estonian prime ministers to date, and could even be ''good for the country'' in some sense.

He needs much more than international exposure, at home, to do that, however. Centre is still for many the party of Edgar Savisaar, a pivotal if controversial figure in Estonia's independence drive. The party has always had a good share of Estonian-speaking voters, but moving beyond the Savisaar era still seems to be a case of damned if they do, damned if they don't.

After Centre was equated for so long with Mr. Savisaar and all the baggage that came with — good, bad and indifferent — the new, forward-looking version is taking time to sink in. Now that it has started to happen for real, it has paradoxically harmed the party in the polls, particularly amongst Russian supporters, down to around 65% of those polled (from over 80%) in months. If that trend continues, Centre could well be relegated to division 2 alongside Pro Patria and the Social Democratic Party (SDE).

Centre under Mr. Ratas has been doing some real work in licking itself into a viable, electable party for all, closing out the 2010s. Which again, paradoxically means it may be punished at the March 2019 elections.

Graphical representation of September's Kantar Emor polls. From left, Reform is yellow, Centre, green and EKRE blue. Source: ERR News/Andrew Whyte

Centre and Reform

A coalition with the other big hitter, Reform, seems unlikely — it would be a submission for one and confirmation of dominance for the other. However, Centre does look more likely to eat humble pie, but Reform, who are probably at their peak of support with the Kaja Kallas effect, and may see a drop in popularity between now and the elections, would not need them to in any case (granted humility and the Reform Party aren't words we would often see on the same page).

An agreement wouldn't entirely be without precedent — there was an abortive deal between Reform in the personhood of Siim Kallas, father of current party leader and prime-minister-in-waiting Kaja, and the then-embodiment of Centre, Mr. Savisaar, in late 2016 with Mr. Kallas supposed to get the presidency and Mr. Savisaar the Riigikogu. Two men from the Soviet era deciding what might be best for Estonia seems horribly out of date now, though, and the idea of Reform in office yet again with Mr. Savisaar as PM was, to put it politely, not one which would get much traction with the majority of people.

Another possible deal if the timing was right would be trading the Tallinn City Government for the Riigikogu. Along with breaking the agreement with United Russia, we would really know that the new, improved Centre was for real if its long-term fiefdom of Tallinn went to Reform, with Centre in national government. But the next local elections are a way off, Tallinn is a smaller prize than the Riigikogu so far as Reform go, and would prove challenging. Rolling back Centre's transport policy could backfire for Reform, for instance.

Centre is nonetheless doing the right thing in draining the swamp even when it harms them, as in Narva. The party has always been something of a broad church, and factions abound; nonetheless Centre are more amenable than most of the rest, at least this "new" Centre. Reminiscent of Ireland's Fianna Fáil, both in being something of a catch-all, and genuinely standing up for the little man. Not having one dogmatic position on many issues of social morality — always an irksome area for government to get involved in — is a plus too.

Reform's main handicap, its lengthy duration in office and the fatigue that set in, leading up to Taavi Rõivas' ousting in 2016, seems to have abated already; perhaps people have short memories. At the same time, the party has 11 years experience in office compared with Centre's two, since 2005. Two sides of the same coin.

Modernising Centre's image

The Centre Party still at times look like something from the Soviet Union somehow, to my eyes; perhaps that is intentional. The party is still some way from having enough "beautiful people" if that's even their desire; imagine Reform's "Tugev meeskond" (English: "strong team") poster applied to the Centre Party. The latter could wheel out Kadri Simson, Oudekki Loone and co., but the whole smorgasbord would be a bit of a Muppet Show — but that is part of Centre's charm. Attracting Kaido Höövelson (the former sumo wrestler known as Baruto) may bring some colour, but the party getting an experienced political scalp from elsewhere, something Reform (Marko Mihkelson), Estonia 200 (Margus Tsahkna) and SDE (Indrek Tarand) have all done recently, is still not really on the horizon.

Actually a pretty good ad campagin. Source:

Image aside, the party or at least the Ratas-ites seems to have in any case put principles above votes. It could however end up yet in a coalition with EKRE — who have not ruled Centre in or out as a possible partner of late.

Can Centre survive without Narva?

The party faced what in the UK would be called a back-bench rebellion in summer but, due to the nuances of the electoral system in Estonia, not to mention the dynamic of a truly bilingual electorate, with no option of devolution (which would be tantamount to handing over Ida-Viru County to the Russian Federation), the outcome was mass defections from the city council and a new Narva bubble party ("Our Home, Narva"). If this means voter defection in Ida-Viru County on the national level, this would be serious, but on its own not necessarily fatal — the episode saw just one MP, Olga Ivanova, a native of Narva herself, leaving Centre for the naughty chairs at the back of the Riigikogu classroom, reserved for "independents."

Since "Our Home, Narva" do not run nationally and there is no alternative at present for Russian voters, more likely would be a case of the already quite low voter turnout amongst the Russian population being even lower; ie. Centre loses votes which no one else picks up. The famous Russian apathy when it comes to politics and other matters would be in play.

Nonetheless, Russian-speaking voters have been a traditional party bedrock. If Centre has been playing with fire there, it can't expect to snap up a lot of Estonian votes in short order. Estonian voters have four other parties in the Riigikogu plus a couple of nascent, untested groups like Estonia 200 who have not done that — why should they pick Centre ahead of those?

Ceasing to be 'the Russian Party'

If the party ends up cancelling its cooperation agreement with United Russia (Vladimir Putin's party), then that will probably spell the end of Centre qua a Russian party. Even if it retains residual support amongst Russian speakers, the proportion isn't likely to be markedly higher than that of many other parties. So where can Russian voters go?

As noted, we could well end up in a situation where voter turnout, fairly average for Europe, falls even lower, with the Russian-speaking former Centre voters in (mostly) self-imposed electoral exile, which is not a good thing. There simply would be no obvious second home for Russian-speaking voters on a national level, post Centre. This could add fuel to the fire in the "disenfranchised" claims, or lead to several small Russian-based parties as with Narva.

Centre and EKRE

One party waiting actively in the wings to mop up this "disenfranchised" group is the nationalist Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) — ironically, a party likely to do well at the elections and whose leader, Martin Helme, has recently spoken warmly of Russian civilisation and culture. Some of the defections from Centre in this demographic might even be EKRE-influenced, with the latter informing the often (not always) conservative Russian voters about Centre's pushing of the ''homosexual agenda'' being the crook used to shepherd many of them into the EKRE fold. I have even heard anecdotal evidence of long-term Centre supporters/activists amongst the Estonian-speaking majority changing to EKRE.

Reform itself is also picking up some Russian votes, according to the polls, as is SDE.

Central Centre centrist policies

So far as policy differentiation goes, this is one area where Centre do seem to be lacking, albeit in the face of the proviso about consensus. They seem to follow the herd on the quick-fix issues (e.g. cutting alcohol excise duties, though I'm not sure what "tax peace" means) as well as on some of the long term projects (e.g. making Tallinn-Tartu Highway four lane) and there is a lack of imagination on taxation reform. They have committed to maintaining the pensions system as is, however.

The two areas Centre pledged its largest sums in the recent round of "protection money" allocation, i.e. education and public transport, are key Centre shibboleths, as reflected in the ministries which it holds — education, public affairs, economic affairs and infrastructure, and of course rural affairs.

Centre also still support bilingual education, not something which would endear them to many Estonian voters and yet something that EKRE again seems to concur on. Nonetheless, Centre is strong on education and has an able and principled minister in Mailis Reps.

Can free public transport keep Centre in?

The sweetener of sweeteners is the "free" public transport, which has been in place for Tallinn city residents for so long, it would be a brave party who would rescind it. Indeed, the tactic has been repeated in the provinces, rolled out in all but a handful of the 15 counties (though the exceptions are the most populous ones; the system covers rural lines only — Tartu city buses still charge residents for travel). Significantly losing votes nationally in the wake of this scheme would also be a major blow; since it is a new and more complex phenomenon than in Tallinn, it would be easier for an incoming Reform government to get rid of the county lines transport in any case.

The 'validator' which those taking a free bus ride (or a paid one) still need to swipe upon boarding a bus. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

In spite of it all, Jüri Ratas has been doing the right thing and can be seen as a cut above some of his opponents, ethically speaking and in other ways. He hasn't engaged in language tricks or told Estonian voters one thing and Russian voters another (or even English-language media yet another) and has in fact cracked down on Centre doing that, keen to stress the one-message-for-all principle.

This is going to leave some prominent party members, not least Yana Toom, in a tight spot and we can expect more defections and splits in the coming months. A semi-resurgent SDE probably won't be a source of future Centre votes; the emergence of at least two new parties, and another, Free, being in intensive care, again doesn't have enough of an interface with Centre to make a big difference.

The most likely scenario for Centre's survival is the Estonian vote being split up amongst four or five parties aside from Reform, and to come to some agreement with EKRE plus one other. Of course, continuing to do the right thing may mean sitting out the next term, to re-emerge anew, still under Mr. Ratas' tutelage.

Do these three things: move away from United Russia, vacate the Tallinn City Government and attract one or two career politicians from other parties (which would follow from the first two), and we have a totally new Centre Party. Not going to happen before March 2019, however.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla, Dario Cavegn

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