Opinion: Centre Party dropped the ball

The two biggest parties as represented via the medium of balloon. After last night, the proportions are about right, too.
The two biggest parties as represented via the medium of balloon. After last night, the proportions are about right, too. Source: ERR

What happened last night? I had said Centre were going to do it. My colleague thought the same, though with different permutations on what form the next coalition would take. Even three of the four ERR political journalist heavyweights over on Vikerraadio called it for Centre. Yet once the full picture of the e-vote came in, at about 20.00, it became clear that Reform had a massive lead, something which Centre never really recovered from, in the way it had in 2015. In trying to pick up the pieces, it might be easiest to explain why Centre lost.

Centre – cut off its own nose to spite its face

Centre came into office in November 2016 after a vote of no-confidence in the then prime minister, Taavi Rõivas. In other words, it did not win the previous election, in 2015, in its own right (though it was just three seats behind in second place, and 12 seats ahead of the third placed party, not seven as this time). This happened after the two junior coalition parties abandoned Reform after the no-confidence vote, and did a deal with Centre. There was always going to be unresolved issues left over from that – the very fact Kaja Kallas felt the need to state that she did not take what had happened personally, that points to underlying resentment and a feeling of unfinished business.

So Centre had been somewhat opportunist and wasn't standing on the firmest footing. The party could have consolidated things in the two and a half years between taking office and the election. It did not. If anything, things got worse. Party organisations in the provinces seem to do whatever they like, particularly in eastern cities like Narva or Kohtla-Järve, where they are at their most sullen, paying no heed to the party leadership. The split was most recently demonstrated in the case of the Kohtla-Järve school language issue; most graphically by the wholesale exodus in Narva, where council deputies formed their own group, ''Our home, Narva'', presumably continuing in the same corruption that they had been told to desist from, with gay abandon.

So much for party divisions themselves, they could be (and to an extent were) masked to the public enough for it not to cost votes. Reform is riven with division too, which makes last night a significant win for one particular wing of the party. However, Centre just lost the vote.

The party had been spending much of Mr Ratas' tutelage cleaning up its side of the street and shedding its old image of being, well, quite liberal in its interpretation of how party leaderships can engage in extra-curricular business activities and similar, going back to the Edgar Savisaar era. I thought it had been well on the way to achieving something here, and in recent times had started to look a lot less ''Soviet'' than Centre of yore. That may well have been the case, but I and most of my ex-pat friends here are not voters. And Centre, as became clear last night, managed to alienate its old voter base without sufficiently replenishing it with a new one. This meant that it could not turn things around on the paper vote. I was waiting for the swing to come, and indeed when the paper vote count started coming in, there was slight move Centre-wards, but not more than a couple of seats. Thus, there was no repeat of 2015, when Centre was nowhere in the e-vote (like, less than 10%) yet rallied for a strong second place.

Making moves to appeal to the younger, more modern, more Estonian voter – traditionally Reform people – led Centre to losing its own traditional support base, ie. the Russian vote, without succeeding in courting the Estonian vote. Nowhere was this clearer than in the e-vote results. It was always a given that Reform was going to do well in e-votes, compared with Centre. But that it did so by a margin that Centre was unable to recover from is in part Centre's own doing. It was (along with EKRE) a party which had strong reservations about e-voting and its trustworthiness. Well, ok, but in so doing are you not sending a message out to your own voter base, not to engage in e-voting?

E-voting is here to stay, the figures demonstrate that, as we had record numbers of people polling that way (close to 300,000 from less than 200,000 last time); the May European election will probably see record numbers too (by the standards of the Brussels elections at least). Concerns about its security are valid; about voters being manipulated during the advance voting period, even more so. But, guess what, people can vote for you online too.

Reform naturally did not take many voters over to its camp from Centre, so where did they all go? Some would have gone to EKRE, which was busy behind the scenes telling people that Centre could well be engaged in ''homo propaganda'' from pre-school level. But mostly, they just stayed home. As SDE leader Jevgeni Ossinovski noted, without a polarising issue, Russian voters often do just that, presumably on the grounds that elections are ''boring'' (then later go on to moan about the general activities of some nebulous formation called ''the government''). Centre lost a lot of its core base; it had nowhere else to go.

Reform – really is the natural party of government, for many

So who was voting for Reform? The same people that always do, in the main. The party is quite well known for being the affiliation of choice for the bright young things of the Tallinn professional class, but its also popular with middle-class families living in the suburbs and countryside surrounding Tallinn and Tartu, with young mothers looking for state support, with older businesspeople not wanting the nest egg to be imperilled, with a particular type of civil, very presentable pensioner - even with more Estonian patriots than we might expect.

That demographic is enough to win it. And regionally, if you take two districts of Tallinn, plus Harju County, the most populous electoral district, that's about two-thirds of the way already.

On the day, all these people rallied to the flag, and they did so thanks to not only being more wired, but by being more social media-savvy. Starting about a week before polling day (when advance voting was in full swing), Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, the epitome of the Reform Party-ite, appeared in a couple of short ads which popped up in my social media feed. In them, she was imploring people to go and vote because, while they sat there, ''thousands of people are voting for EKRE and Centre''. This approach worked too – the ''anyone but Centre'' crowd were thus mobilised, and many of the younger and more cosmopolitan in the electorate were spooked by an EKRE prospect too.

I have to remind myself, again, that just because I am fatigued with Reform – out of office for just two and a half years over the last 16 or so, and back in again, and practically the only in-office party I have ever known in my time in Estonia – I assume that this means others are too, ie. Estonians, who can catually vote. It doesn't work that way, and it is infinitely preferable, for many, to have a party which is nice and presentable, not to mention business-friendly and exuding promises of wealth, than most other options on offer.

Where Reform ex-members go is telling, as well. Anne Sulling for instance, another Reform pin-up girl, announced ahead of this election she was stepping down to go back into the private sector, connected with foreign trade and innovation, presumably a more lucrative deal than the Riigikogu (MPs get just under €3,500 per month, close to three times the national average, plus expenses. There are even juicier sums to be had in the private sector, if you're in the right field, however). Of course, those not running for re-election for other parties could well have gone on to do the same - it's just that I can't find any clear statement from anyone to that effect.

The party put aside its internal differences for long enough to win the election; these personalities will however re-emerge in time, and Kaja Kallas is going to have quite a hard time managing the various egos whilst maintaining her independence as democratically elected prime minister. As a senior political journalist here at ERR is wont to say, this is Estonia.

One other thought: let's face it, lads, the easier-on-the-eye candidate won. This is hardly a level playing field, since Jüri Ratas is a guy, but nonetheless it's a demonstrable norm that the better-looking, or whoever is perceived to be better looking by the largest group of people, as often as not wins. Kennedy versus Nixon, John Major versus Neil Kinnock ... Tony Blair versus John Major, the list goes on. Having experienced work as an MEP in Brussels, Kaja Kallas is no doubt accustomed to male attention and can take it in her stride, which is just as well, because she's going to get a whole load more of it coming her way.

EKRE – played the boogeyman role to a tee

This party did well, almost tripling its number of seats, but not quite well enough to satisfy the ''Europe is lurching inexorably towards the right''-brigade that makes up much of the English-language media.

As a colleague who heads up an online magazine about Estonia pointed out, a greater number of seats means a greater amount of state funds and other perks (sometimes I think people form parties just to wet their beak in this way). This is true, but EKRE did not meet its critical mass and it was the one party that really came up short of the recent support surveys, conducted by two or three different companies.

Again, the scare factor may have helped Reform more than it did Centre, but it is still in opposition, where it can have an eye kept on it at all times. Expect more EKRE-esque publicity stunts in the Riigikogu and elsewhere; something really will have to be done reference the UN Global Compact on Migration and Estonia's relationship to it, still up in the air at present, and same-sex marriage not to be on the table any time soon.

SDE aside, the frequent telegraphing of ''we would not work with EKRE'' is, as much as anything, window-dressing for the international audience. Reform for one thing would probably have gone into coalition with EKRE if it made the difference between being in office and not being in office - even Siim Kallas, in the throes of victory on Sunday evening, said there was a ''99% chance'' that Reform would not join up with EKRE, rather than a 100% one - but now it doesn't have to, so it's a moot point.

The other two – could still end up in office

Isamaa dug its heels in and held on for 12 seats, only two fewer than it got in 2015 (after which it was in office), and slightly more than many expected. The party has a core, loyal support, and the distinct advantage that elections tend to come around a week after independence day (advance voting was already underway when the blue-black-and-white was hoisted in front of the president this year). It has plenty of friends in the commercial media too, and is hardly going to want to relinquish the justice ministry and the defence ministry. Twelve seats is probably enough to remain in office – I had thought it would do so, but with Centre, not Reform. Working with the latter will be a smoother process for both sides, too.

SDE was a mess these last few months. Indeed the Indrek Tarand Toompea incident could almost serve as a metaphor for what went on with the party. The leader, Jevgeni Ossinovski, is pointing the finger at EKRE and Estonia 200 this morning. Whilst the latter definitely attracted some voters to SDE's cost, I doubt it was much more than a mandate's-worth. Not having friends in the media, reference the Vakra and Kovalenko plagiarism cases, would have cost those individuals their seats, or potential seats (and did, though it was right down to the wire for Rainer Vakra), but only had a limited detrimental effect on the whole, since SDE has a core, loyal support to mirror Isamaa's. If the latter ends up in the coalition, then SDE will too, for another round of sparring I expect.

Would-be SDE leaders, particularly Indrek Saar, smell blood. The latter did not win a seat, however, which takes some of the gloss off things (or, equally, can be spun into blaming Mr Ossinovski for said loss).

The rest of the pack – forming new parties gives votes to the establishment

It ended up a five-party Riigikogu as we'd predicted here, so there's not too much to say about the remainder, except to be sure you know what you're getting into when setting up a new party. I personally admire Estonia 200's having a go, and I'm sure it can learn from its many mistakes: having its manifesto published in a newspaper whose editor-in-chief was running for the party, focussing a bit too much on getting big-name, flagship candidates (the party isn't alone in doing that, but when you're a newcomer, you can be setting yourself up for a fall), not having its website in English, and of course the tram stop poster debacle. I had thought at one time it would switch places with Free, but there was no room at the inn with this election's consolidation. This of course raises the question as to how Free ever got there in the first place. That party is free as a bird now, the bird in question being a dodo.

The Greens performed about as well as we might have expected, and in fact almost doubled its number of votes on 2015, making it the second-most-improved party after EKRE, in terms of votes. Richness of Life again did not surprise one way or another, although it still got more votes than the Free Party.

Where next?

Last night's election was a swifter affair than I had expected – with more staff at the polling stations (a reported 10 per station were tasked with sifting through thousands of ballot papers) it could have been quicker – so let's hope the same is the case with forming a coalition. The perennial eeyore of the Estonian political scene, Urmas Reinsalu, said last week that the process could take well over the usual month or so. Fortunately the May European election puts a time limit on things; all the parties will be wanting to gear up for that, so I expect we will have a coalition government before Easter, and I expect it won't include Centre.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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