By Martin Mölder (Central European University)

The change in the leadership of the Estonian Centre Party on November 5th 2016 that led to the rapid formation of a new coalition between the Centre Party (CP) as the new party of the Prime Minister, the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (PPRU) and the Social Democrats (SD) was not just another government change, but indicative of broader tensions and silent malaise that had been building up in the political system. When the dam finally burst, it became obvious how long the cracks had been there and the flooding was swift. The new coalition was the result of several dynamics and to understand the situation, we need to have a short look into the past of the parties and their position on the party landscape.

The Centre Party had been under the control of Edgar Savisaar almost without interruption since 1991. He had been the leader of the Popular Front, a precursor to the party, which was an alternative strand in the otherwise nationalist independence movement during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although it had been among the most popular parties since the late 1990s and had been in government several times, most recently with the Reform Party in 2007, it was increasingly marginalized by its competitors over the last decade. The leadership of Savisaar, both in the party and in the capital Tallinn, where he was the mayor (2001-2004 and from 2007), was perceived by his opponents and critics as corrupt, clientelistic and authoritarian.

Being the only party since the April 2007 Bronze Soldier riots in Tallinn that did not alienate the Russian-speaking electorate, it was easy for its rivals to over-exaggerate the Russian connection and portray it as a threat of sorts. This seemed to work well in the ethnically paranoid atmosphere of the country. The decline in the public image of the party was intimately related to the decline of its former leader. The last two nails in the coffin of Savisaar were serious health problems that befell him in 2015, as well as a corruption investigation against him. The latter saw him removed from the office of the mayor of Tallinn by court order pending the investigation.

While the overall position of the Centre Party was deteriorating along with its leader, the Reform Party was enjoying a pivotal position on the political landscape. It had been a member of every coalition since 1999, the party of the Prime Minister since 2005 and the largest party in parliament since 2007. It thus occupied a privileged position in the party system in which it was virtually impossible to form a coalition without them. Especially if the other major party – the Centre Party – was declared unwelcome in the coalition game.

However, the elongated resting on the laurels began taking its toll on the Reform Party, its image and perceived capacity slowly fading. Over the previous years there were several corruption scandals and allegations that happened under the watch of the party or involved its senior members. Several of the party elite, including the then Minister of Justice and the current outgoing Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure, Kristen Michal, were implicated in an illegal donations scandal in 2012. Even though the case did not reach court and the party suffered no official negative consequences, the image of the party was damaged. A few years later another government minister of the Reform Party, Keit Pentus-Rosimannus and a Reform Party MP as well as the latter’s husband, Rain Rosimannus, were implicated in a court case over business malpractice. Having gone through several court levels, the case was eventually dismissed, but again the damage was done. Furthermore, the uncovering in 2015 of top level corruption in the Port of Tallinn, one of the major state owned companies, with allegations of connections to the Reform Party, did not have a positive impact on the image of how things were run in the country.

The Reform Party also had its own change in leadership. The young full-time party member Taavi Rõivas replaced Andrus Ansip as the leader of the party and as the Prime Minister in 2014. But instead of reinvigorating the party, it eventually just showed how a new generation of the same kind of party elite was rising within, a generation that had been in politics for their entire life and who, even though being good at micro managing the state, were perceived to lack the resolve and the imagination to take the country forward in any meaningful way. Nor did the older generations within simply step aside. Tensions between the “have been” and the “want to be” sides were displayed to the public most recently when the party failed to be unified over a candidate for the presidential elections in 2016. It seemed that Rõivas was not even able to manage the internal dissent within the party, which obviously cast doubt on his ability to run the state.

Soon after the Centre Party was ostracised from the party system in the late 2000s, it was clear that a change in its leadership was a matter of time. There were too many capable and ambitious politicians within who were not willing to slowly go down with the ship and its doomed captain. The first serious challenge to Savisaar came in 2011 when the one time Mayor of Tallinn (2005-2007) and MP (2007-2016) Jüri Ratas ran against Savisaar, but lost back then. In 2015, Kadri Simson, member of parliament since 2007, unsuccessfully attempted to challenge the leadership of Savisaar, although it was evident already then that the latter was struggling to maintain its position. Finally, in November 2016, as the internal party support for their fading leader and his followers had been evaporating enough, the time was ripe for the party to have a new face. And when it finally happened, the other parties in government did not hesitate to abandon the Reform Party and its dominance in favour of a new partner.

There has been a fair amount of misunderstanding about the nature of the new coalition, both within the country and among the reports that have reached the outside world. It is true that in the early 2000s the Centre Party signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia, but as far as the overall political outlook of the party and its loyalty to the Western direction of the country is concerned, this agreement is inconsequential. Mostly it has been a scarecrow used by other parties to spook the voters and to consolidate their own support. The Centre Party of Jüri Ratas is not pro-Russian in any negative sense. However, it is and also was before “pro-Russian” in one essential positive aspect in which all of the other parties in the country, even the least nationalist Social Democrats, have failed. It is the only party that has not dismissed and marginalized Russian-speaking Estonians and has provided them with a party that they can vote for and that at least to some extent stands for their interests. In this way, the Centre Party has been a symbolic link between a large proportion of semi-forgotten Estonians and the national political arena. Despite its marginalized status and the reviled leadership of Savisaar and his circle, the party has done Estonian politics a much bigger service than its opponents and competitors have ever admitted.

No doubt, the new coalition will have tensions to resolve and dilemmas to overcome, as it reaches across many of the divides on the Estonian political landscape. On the lesser axis of competition, the legacy left-right dimension, the Social Democrats and the Centre Party are in broad terms centre-left and the PPRU is centre-right. From this perspective, it will no doubt be easier for the former two to cooperate. But one should not underestimate the opportunism of the PPRU. After the surprise election of the populist far-right anti-establishment Estonian Conservative People’s Party and the national-conservative anti-establishment Estonian Free Party to parliament in 2015, the PPRU has been losing out in the competition over the nationalist electorate and is in dire need to reinvent itself.

Much more important than reaching across the trivial left-right aisle is the fact that this coalition perhaps not only overcomes, but vanquishes the main political division in the country that in some form stretches back to gaining independence. The Popular Front, the precursor to the Centre Party, had been in favour of establishing the Estonian state tabula rasa, while the other movements and parties of the time and thereafter were in favour of a more nationalist approach that emphasised the legal and ideational continuity of the new state with inter-war Estonia. The continuationists prevailed and the Centre Party and Savisaar found themselves on the wrong side of history. This division was exacerbated in the 2000s when the other parties began to play up the Russian connection of the Centre Party. In this sense the main dividing line in the party system was not left and right, but Centre Party led by Savisaar, which was symbolising the Russian threat on the wrong side of history, and the rest. This has been evident not only in coalition patterns, but also the voting behaviour of the electorate. The extent to which this was related to the figure of Savisaar was revealed in full only now. The instant the leadership changed, the alignment of the other parties also changed.

How will this shape the future of the party system? For one, it seems that now there is a chance for actual political competition, as the possibilities for coalitions have greatly expanded. When before the Reform Party was able to dominate and dictate due to its privileged position, then now this is no longer true and it is unlikely to be true again in the near future.

What will the structure party competition be? Perhaps we saw a hint of that in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Two new parties were elected to parliament – the far-right populist Conservative People’s Party and the conservative populist Estonian Free Party. Both of them draw their support from a growing general disenchantment with the political establishment. The former seemingly more from marginalised rural areas, the latter from among more well-off urban voters. Taking into consideration the impossibility of left-wing politics in the Estonian mind-set deeply soaked in neoliberalism, this is the closest we can get to the structure we see emerging in so many European countries. The structure where the political establishment is opposed by anti-establishment parties from both the left and the right. Or in the Estonian case, from the right and the far right.

If it is so, one can only hope that this reshuffle among the establishment, and we can consider the Centre Party as having been an integral part of the establishment just like a coin has two sides, can breathe enough new life into the politics of the country so that the potentially reactionary fringe does not become more extreme and more popular. And even though they have been left out of the game for now by the Centre Party, the Reform Party should forever be in debt to Savisaar, as in the end it was him more that anything else that ensured them the place in power for such a long time. Long enough perhaps for them to forget that in a democracy the place of power should be empty.

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