Continuing din surrounding EKRE not bringing any real change

EKRE chair Mart Helme.
EKRE chair Mart Helme. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

In the latest approval ratings commissioned by ERR, the Reform Party leads with 27%, followed by the Centre Party 3 percentage points behind at 24%. This means that in real terms, the outcry the inclusion of EKRE in the current preliminary coalition talks has caused has barely made a dent. Compared to March 2018 polling data, the change is minimal — and there are other signs that indeed very little has changed or is changing in Estonian politics.

Party approval surveys were as commonplace last year as they are now. March 2018 saw the usual two polls commissioned, one by private Postimees Grupp (back then still called Eesti Meedia), carried out by Kantar Emor, and the other by public broadcaster ERR, carried out by Turu-uuringute AS.

Kantar Emor had the Reform Party at 34.1% approval at the time, more than 10 points ahead of Centre's just 23.8%. Turu-uuringute AS had Reform at 31%, and Centre still 5 points behind at 26%.

This means that despite the public outcry we're seeing at the moment, amplified as it has been by social media as well as Estonia's largest publications, the reality is that the preliminary coalition talks between Prime Minister Jüri Ratas' Centre Party, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa have hardly left a dent in the overall political affiliation of Estonian voters.

The latest poll, run for ERR by Turu-uuringute AS between 5 and 18 March, to a large extent fell right during the busiest time of reactions to Mr Ratas' advances to EKRE and Isamaa, which should still make it fairly representative of the current situation.

Polls indicate Centre losing Russian-speaking voters, but at no great rate

While Centre's coming in second place is a mere reversion to what has been the dominant top-two ranking for most of the past decade, the one noteworthy change is that the party's support among Russian speakers seems to have dropped slightly.

Where in February in the last ratings before the 3 March general election, Centre had the support of 72% of Russian-speaking voters, this is now down to 66%.

Still, not even this holds up as an indicator of any kind of political disaster. The same indicator dropped from 80% in January to said 72% in February, which means that Centre lost more support among Russian-speakers in the last phase of the election campaign than it has since it started talking to EKRE!

Liberal backlash boosting EKRE ratings?

That voters' support of EKRE surged from 16% before the elections to 21% now in March may have to do with opposition voiced in the media as well as on social media.

But even such a mix of spite and euphoria can't paint over the fact that EKRE actually only has the sort of support now that it had in the election anyway. While some of the respondents in the polls before 3 March might not have wanted to say that they would vote for them, now that they've done it, they might be slightly more straightforward about it as well.

And with the remaining two parties, Isamaa and the Social Democrats (SDE), as hopelessly in the doldrums as by now common, there really isn't all that much reason to believe that current developments have the potential to actually shake Estonian politics to the core.

Need of Reform to get back into government unchanged, party eerily quiet

Important reminder: the ongoing talks between Centre, EKRE and Isamaa still have preliminary character. The Reform Party has won the election, and with that, it is up to Kaja Kallas to first try and form a government.

Should she not succeed, chances are the president will find herself forced to give that task to Mr Ratas instead. But we are not there yet.

Of all the parties currently in the picture, the one that has the greatest immediate need to make itself part of the next government is still Reform. The party's current almost complete silence is a good hint that this side of the discussion is far from over.

Since autumn 2016, Reform has proven itself an almost entirely toothless opposition party. Despite rejecting rumours of infighting, it has at times had serious difficulty keeping its own people in line.

There is another problem as well. The party's political expertise, bundled in personalities like Jürgen Ligi, Aivar Sõerd, Maris Lauri and others, is tied very closely to the post-1990s order, and thus comes with an expiration date: should a coalition that doesn't include Reform go on with systemic changes of the kind the outgoing government introduced, come 2023 and onwards, much of what Reform's tested political operatives have to say about administration, tax policy and the economy will have become obsolete at least up to a point.

Being in government necessary part of Kallas-Ansip retirement planning, EU appointments

Adding to all of this, the party has its own free-floaters to take care of. Where in Western European countries, people like Siim Kallas, Andrus Ansip, Taavi Rõivas and other highly decorated party politicians could be put up in well-paid directorships at banks, insurance companies and the like, the Estonian economy isn't big enough to provide this sort of comfortable retirement plan.

What to do with them? Should Mr Kallas or Mr Ansip ever want to be president, they would need a large support base in parliament, namely the sort that comes with coalition partners. The same applies for appointments to EU institutions: to control that sort of thing, one needs to be in government, and, ideally, in charge of it.

Hence Centre-EKRE-Isamaa is far from settled: we will hear from the Reform Party yet.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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