Party chairs take stock of 'nervous' 2019 election campaign

Estonia 200's controversial campaign suggested actual segregation in Estonia.
Estonia 200's controversial campaign suggested actual segregation in Estonia. Source: ERR

Estonia's parties as well as candidates are "jittery" in the ongoing Riigikogu election campaign, chairwomen and chairmen of the main political parties find. Several of them are saying that while plenty of the issues are worth a broader debate, the competition generally refuses to engage.

The United Nations' Global Compact on Migration, hate speech, Russian influence, integration, the fragmentation of society, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) as the great new threat to the country—those are just a few of the topics around which the fear-mongering of Estonia's political parties has revolved in the ongoing campaign, ERR's Aktuaalne kaamera newscast said on Sunday.

Aktuaalne kaamera's weekly review spoke to the chairwomen and chairmen of the major parties, asking them about this year's campaign as compared to previous ones.

Lack of focus, lack of substance, fake news and half-truths

Kaul Nurm of the Free Party complains about the lack focus of the campaign: "The debate hasn't made it to any real-life issues," Mr Nurm said.

Pro Patria's Helir-Valdor Seeder sees little chance that the campaign will change much in the weeks ahead. "I would assume that these issues will continue to be the main topics until the election," Mr Seeder said.

EKRE's Mart Helme sees a sinister plot to derail the efforts of nationalist forces. "All of these issues were brought up by Europe-friendly forces, who are trying to use them to demonise nationalist forces as well as their own competitors," Mr Helme said.

Chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SDE), Jevgeni Ossinovski, sees a general decline of Estonia's political culture. "The style of politics has certainly become angrier," Mr Ossinovski said.

Centre Party chairman and Prime Minister Jüri Ratas sees "a lot of fake news, populism and half-truths," while chairwoman of the Reform Party Kaja Kallas agrees with Mr Nurm that the focus of the debate is off.

"There could be more substantial debate, to get an idea what our actual ideological differences are," Ms Kallas said.

EKRE replaces Savisaar-dominated Centre Party as everybody's favourite villain

While in the last election campaign in 2015 Edgar Savisaar's Centre Party was shunned by all other parties, in 2019 it is EKRE that finds itself in this role, with most others excluding the possibility to work with them in a potential future government.

At this point, the prime minister's Centre Party as well as the Social Democrats, Estonia 200 and the Reform Party have all turned against them.

"For the first time in 27 years, the basic principles of our free society are under attack," Mr Ossinovski said about his party's decision in the issue. The Social Democrats were the first to categorically reject the notion of ever working with EKRE.

Somewhat late to the party, Kaja Kallas joined in last week after EKRE published its campaign platforms for the elections. Ms Kallas took matters a step further, suggesting that EKRE are a direct threat to the constitutional order of Estonia and thus moving them into the interest orbit of Estonia's security authorities.

Estonia 200's "segregation" campaign

Last week newcomer Estonia 200 tried its luck with a provocative campaign that suggested actual segregation of Estonian and Russian speakers. Adverts placed at a tram stop in central Tallinn asked travellers to wait in two different areas, one for Estonians and one for Russians.

The party's stunt brought it a lot of criticism, with comments ranging from the rejection of an unpopular topic to straightforward comparisons with Nazi Germany. Justified or not, Estonia 200's chairwoman, Kristina Kallas, eventually had to speed up the campaign and explain the party's motives.

Whether or not the ads will cost Estonia 200 votes remains to be seen. Meanwhile, none of the other party chairs see the campaign as an obstacle to future cooperation with the new kid on the block.

What parties would actually like to see discussed

Aktuaalne kaamera also asked the party chairs what issues they would like to see discussed more substantially.

"How people can make ends meet, their feeling of security. A pension increase for the elderly, how young people can start a family, an increase in benefits for the first and second child, but certainly also the aspect of workers' pay," Prime Minister Jüri Ratas said.

The Reform Party's Kaja Kallas would like to talk about education in more detail. "One thing we might have wanted to discuss in more detail is certainly the changeover to an Estonian-language education system, which was a proposal of ours already in the 2017 local polls," Ms Kallas said. "We have a definite plan how to do this. But this could be discussed without hysteria, and with an actual view to the future."

To EKRE, the main issue is maintaining Estonia's sovereignty within the European Union, party chairman Mart Helme said. The other parties refuse to discuss this issue and "scare the people" with a supposed anti-EU referendum. "We're not talking about leaving the EU, but about the kind of EU we want to be part of, whether to a union of national states or a federation," Mr Helme said.

Estonia 200's Kristina Kallas would like to see the debate turn towards reducing red tape, higher salaries and the lack of a qualified workforce. "I think that [the latter] is a very painful issue, another painful issue that we don't want to talk about here in Estonia," Ms Kallas said. "All the parties are hiding their heads in the sand, but we really need to talk about this."

SDE's Jevgeni Ossinovski would like a debate on social issues, including how to bring Estonia forward in the areas of access to heath care and investments in education, while Pro Patria chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder sees deficits concerning both national defence and Estonia's birth rate. The Free Party would like to see the focus shift towards life in Estonia's countryside and more remote areas.

What the chairmen and chairwomen agree on is that the real hot phase of the campaign is still ahead. Starting 23 January, when the customary pre-election ban of most political advertising enters into effect, parties will have to get creative to get their point across, and to shine in the upcoming political debates.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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