Editor's prediction: Centre to win, form next government with Reform Party ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Dario Cavegn, ERR News.
Dario Cavegn, ERR News. Source: ERR News

Time to risk a prediction, although the exact amount of risk involved might not be entirely scary: the Centre Party will win the election by a few mandates, enter difficult but successful coalition negotiations with its former arch-enemy, and eventually form a new government with the Reform Party.

But let's have a closer look: why is this the most likely scenario?

Centre Party will beat Reform, but not by much

Under the Estonian electoral system, people choose a party list by voting for an individual candidate. Even someone who might not have a personal preference, but wants to vote for a certain party, will still have to pick an individual to do so.

This means that asking: "Which party will you vote for?" won't produce quite as accurate a picture as asking: "Which candidate will you vote for?".

ERR commissioned such a survey, based both on web as well as face-to-face interviews. These are the results, including margins of error:

  • The Centre Party will get between 25 and 30%.
  • The Reform Party will get between 21 and 26%.
  • EKRE will get between 15 and 19%.
  • The Social Democrats will get between 9 and 13%.
  • Isamaa will get between 9 and 12%.

This hints at two main shifts. The first is that EKRE will double its mandates (although it won't manage much more than that and certainly won't triple them). The second, that Centre is likely to replace Reform as the largest group in the Riigikogu.

This makes predicting the next government somewhat difficult, as the numbers are close enough that they might not work in any scenario we can come up with.

Likely and unlikely coalition scenarios

1. Centre-Reform: the "grand coalition" This would bring together Estonia's two largest political parties. The Reform Party's chairwoman, Kaja Kallas, recently pointed out that beyond the issues of income tax and tax-free income, citizenship policy and Estonian-based education starting from nursery school, the parties will likely be able to negotiate.

Still, Estonian politics is hardly ever about just ideology. Negotiations between Centre and Reform, should they both play with the thought of entering the government together, in addition to policy issues are likely to revolve quite soberly around who gets what.

Plenty of people—party founder, Siim Kallas, among them—have said that getting back to power is a make or break question for the Reform Party. In a little over two years in opposition, the party hasn't managed to come out with substantial new ideas, and its attacks on the coalition have widely failed to have any effect. Should it end up in opposition again after tomorrow's election, chances are it might not survive the next four years.

Which makes it very motivated to join Centre, but also to look around for other potential partners:

2. Reform-SDE-Isamaa This would mark an uneasy return to the situation before autumn 2016, when Reform was replaced with Centre by its junior partners. To make this combination work, all three of the parties would need to score a maximum-possible number of mandates—and even then, they would have only a slim majority in the Riigikogu.

They have been able to work together in the past, last but not least due to Reform's unique ability to balance off concessions with power. Reform in the role of the prime minister's party has proven to be surprisingly flexible, eg taking over part of the Social Democrats' social policy platform while deferring to Isamaa (then IRL) eg on matters like education or citizenship policy.

Reform, at heart, is a party of old-school administrators with a talent for running a well-oiled spoils system. It knows how to keep things running and how to keep its power base organised—as long as it has the necessary backing. Seeing it back in government certainly wouldn't amount to the worst-case scenario, so long as it makes it there with the right kind of partner.

At the same time, it is this same flexibility, along with the fact that it is so forcefully drawn to power, which makes the next scenario unlikely, but not quite impossible:

3. Reform-EKRE-Isamaa It is this combination this editor thinks Isamaa has been trying to work towards. From the permanent bickering in any government where it has had to live with the Social Democrats, right down to party chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder's open association with Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban, it is easy to think of this option as the secret wet dream of those on the far right not quite ready to turn everything upside down.

This coalition would give a boost to those in the Reform Party who tend to have a view of Estonia's economy and tax system similarly dogmatic to that of Isamaa. Sure, it would mean trouble where EKRE's ideas of a potential reorganisation of certain aspects of the state are concerned, but at the same time, Isamaa as the provider of the smallest yet most decisive block of votes in the Riigikogu, would have plenty of influence.

There are several factors that substantially decrease the likelihood of such a coalition: there is the public announcement by Ms Kallas that her party won't work with EKRE. In other words, some serious back-pedalling would have to happen here—or, alternatively, an internal coup much like early in 2018, when the party made short work of then-chairman Hanno Pevkur. Though not impossible, such a development is at least unlikely, last but not least also because it would come with the risk of disappointing the moderates among Reform's voters.

Another issue looming large here is that until a short while ago, Reform had to go to great lengths to demonstrate unity against rumours (and evidence) that there tends to be rather substantial disagreement whenever a more socially liberal current within the party collides with that of its power brokers.

Much like another four years in opposition, this coalition would put Reform to a stress test it might not survive, at least not without major internal difficulties.

4. Centre-SDE-Isamaa This would be a continuation of the current government. Highly unlikely: Isamaa as a right-wing party is an uneasy partner to Estonia's centre-left block, and there have been signs since as early as the coalition negotiations in late 2016 (and especially since the replacement of Margus Tsahkna as party chairman) that Isamaa are heartily sick of their partners in government.

A more left-leaning government than any of the above scenarios is highly unlikely. Estonia 200, according to current surveys, won't make it past the 5% election threshold, and hence is out of the picture. Should Reform end up working with Centre, the negotiations will be difficult enough without including another left-leaning party, ie it is unlikely for SDE to enter into this scenario in one form or the other.

Prediction: Centre-Reform will form next government

This editor's prediction is now what it was two years ago: that we are inevitably gravitating towards a coalition of the Centre Party and the Reform Party.

A deal between political dinosaurs Edgar Savisaar (Centre) and Siim Kallas (Reform) might have made the latter president in 2016, but failed against opposition in both parties: enough of the old guard, not another round of that ever-same late-1990s stand-off.

But this failed attempt at consolidation was followed by Centre's swiftly getting rid of Savisaar, replacing him with Jüri Ratas, which catapulted it into the political limelight and made Mr Ratas prime minister within just a short time.

Now, in early 2019, one may well think the two parties could actually help each other, whether they like it or not: Centre, still disorganised and not quite done yet with its own housekeeping, could do with an experienced partner.

In turn, there seem to be plenty of people in the Reform Party who would welcome the opportunity to do things slightly differently, ie without the 1990s neoconservative dogma of Isamaa's tax and social policy hanging over their heads. In this sense, going into government together, though unthinkable until just a short time ago, would give both parties room to breathe and develop.

Another detail is that while Reform could have made Centre's frozen agreement with United Russia an issue again, it didn't. In fact, the matter hardly surfaced, even in the final phase of the campaign. This may be a sign that Reform regarding a potential coalition is at least keeping its options open.

A Centre-Reform government could be both interdependent and sober enough to tackle Estonia's current issues, from tax policy to healthcare to business and infrastructure and transport. In a nutshell, it is this combination that would have both the political potential as well as the real-life power in parliament to redefine Estonia's course—while in any other combination, the muddling-through would likely continue.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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