Talks with EKRE won't split Centre, says party secretary general

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Mihhail Korb.
Mihhail Korb. Source: Siim Lõvi

While undergoing coalition talks with the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) may be arduous for the Centre Party, it need not cause a split, according to party secretary-general Mihhail Korb.

The Centre Party announced on Monday that it was to turn to both EKRE and Isamaa in negotiations of forming the next governmental coalition, having drawn a blank with the electoral majority party, Reform, at the end of last week.

EKRE and Isamaa in turn accepted Centre's proposal on Monday evening, after board meetings.

"It would indeed have been easier for Centre be in opposition, but a party can only stand up for its voters by negotiating and finding common ground, that much is clear,'' said Mr Korb.

''If it turns out we have no intersecting points with EKRE and Isamaa on issues important to us, we will not join any government [with the two parties]," he went on, adding that however difficult the negotiations might prove, they will not necessitate a party split.

So far, at consultation stage

Four Centre board members voted against approaching EKRE for talks on Monday; one of the four, Raimond Kaljulaid, elected at the 3 March election and who is an elder on the North Tallinn district of the city government, quit the board on the issue, on Tuesday morning.

Mr Korb was quick to point out that the talks are only at a consultation stage, with no certainty that a Centre-EKRE-Isamaa coalition would be formed.

"Both the Estonian and Russian-speaking populace can give this alliance their assessment as soon as there is a coalition agreement that a future government could start implementing. Casting aside a large part of society at this point will not take us forward," Mr Korb said.

Centre has traditionally received the backbone of its support from voters amongst the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia. However, the party has been in the process of modernising its image somewhat, under the tutelage of Jüri Ratas, who became prime minister in November 2016. The 3 March election saw a much lower voter turnout in predominantly Russian-speaking areas, notably the easternmost voter district of Ida-Viru County. Popular (in those regions) Centre candidates like Yana Toom saw a huge drop in voter numbers, and the phenomenon has been blamed for Centre finishing second to the Reform party with 26 seats.

EKRE, a far-right party which opposes the UN Global Compact on Migration, large-scale immigration, same-sex marriage and other socially liberal standbys, got 19 seats at the election and finished in third place, making predictions of its being something of a king-maker party become at least partly true.

Centre may yet end up in opposition

Mihhail Korb also noted that EKRE needs to abandon its pre-election rhetoric and added that he and several other members and supporters of the party cannot accept many EKRE's statements, if it is to enter coalition partnership with his party and to avoid Centre going against its own voters' wishes.

Mr Korb also noted that being an opposition party was not impossible, particularly since the party has so far been unable to find any common ground with Reform.

Social media comment and speculation has been rife on the rise of EKRE and what it entails, often assuming that the coalition deal with Centre and Isamaa is a fait accompli, and has spilled over into the international media. In fact, no concrete moves have been made beyond an agreement to talk, with the Reform Party remaining fairly quiet since its rebuffing by Centre at the end of last week.

The other parliamentary party, the Social Democratic Party (SDE) is in something of a weaker position on only 10 seats; as with Reform, it has ruled out any possible partnership with EKRE (which has reciprocated). A Reform-SDE deal would be seven seats short of the required 51-seat parliamentary majority, meaning another party would need to join it if it were to enter into office. The last governmental coalition, made up of Centre, Isamaa and SDE, in fact dipped below the 51-seat benchmark last summer, but hung on through to the general election.

Isamaa big hitter says Centre-EKRE-Isamaa deal unlikely in reality

Outgoing Defence Minister Jüri Luik (Isamaa) meanwhile said that the parties' worldviews were too divergent for a Centre-EKRE-Isamaa coalition to ever come to fruition.

Key to a coalition agreement is not where parties lie on the conservative-liberal continuum, but whether all due consideration is paid to the necessary rights and democratic freedoms, Mr Luik told ERR on Tuesday afternoon, without elaborating.

"Personally, I do not consider it very likely that this lineup will ever make it into office, the contradictions are just too great,'' he said.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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