The Estonian Conservative People’s Party was more popular in July than ever before, The Social Democrats, once ranking their equal, have dropped far behind. EKRE is only two percent behind the Center Party.
A poll ordered by Postimees and BNS shows that EKRE is supported by nearly every fifth Estonian citizen of voting age or 22 percent in total. While they have practically caught up with the Center Party (the gap is within statistical error), the leading Reform Party does not stay out of reach either – the difference is eight percent of potential voters’ support. EKRE has never before been that close to the leading position.
Aivar Voog, a sociologist with Kantar Emor, says that EKRE’s support has begun to even out in various social-demographic groups (except for non-Estonians) and the backers clearly include those more dissatisfied with the policy of the present government (e.g. the tax policy and regional decisions).
EKRE chairman Mart Helme say that catching up with the Center Party has always been their goal. “We had no illusion that we could easily slip by the Reform Party, but we did consider it possible in case of the Center Party,” he said.
But Helme does not entirely rule out that EKRE supporters could abandon the party as quickly as they had gathered behind it. “Yet I tend to believe that very many voters who have not dared express their support to us openly, have now overcome their fears and admit that they back us.”
Helme does not believe that the Center Party would replace the Social Democrats as EKRE’s main sparring partner. He said that the antagonism is primarily placed on the axis of conservative nationalism versus liberal globalism and the supporters of the latter have so far been the Social Democrats. “The Socialists have shown themselves as our main opponents quite clearly, while the situation is slightly more complicated with the Reform and Center parties.”
According to Helme, there is a quite extensive sphere of common interest in economic policy with the Reform Party, while cooperation with the Center Party is possible in regional policy issues.
Center Party deputy chairman Jaanus Karilaid agreed that the main alternatives for the voters will be the Center and Reform parties. “As far as economic policy goes, EKRE is more like a small branch of the Reform Party,” he said.
Karilaid pointed out that the difference between the Center and Reform parties has shrunk following Kaja Kallas’ taking over as the leader of the latter party. “The Center rating, which has slightly increased, gives us a boost and we are ready to contend for election victory,” he said.
Karilaid said that he observes the strengthening of EKRE in a calm and positive mood, since the earlier option for a two-party coalition involved only the Center and Reform parties, the alternatives may become wider after the general election.
Jevgeni Ossinovski, chairman of the Social Democrats, said that they are not competing with EKRE. While the Social Democrats’ rating was 14 percent last month, it has now dropped by one percent. Ossinovski said that he is satisfied with the result. He admitted that the negative attention concerning relations within the party (the antagonism between Urve Palo and Indrek Saar) must have cost them some percent worth of support and the upward trend which began in May would have otherwise continued.
The Social Democrats, according to Ossinovski, have ruled out cooperation only with EKRE, since they oppose regarding some people as inferior and attempts to dismantle democratic rule of law and undermine the European Union. “The brutal populism of EKRE is not a problem for the Social Democrats but the whole society of Estonia,”
While Pro Patria stayed at the edge of election threshold in July (supported by roughly five percent of voters), the support of the Free Party remained below the five-percent threshold for the third month running.
Competitors have been advertising EKRE
According to Tõnis Saarts, a political scientist at the Tallinn University, EKRE’s success primarily depends on the fact that they, together with the Social Democrats, have been the only parties highlighted during the summer. Above all, the competitors have been advertising them.
“Let us recall how Urve Palo described Indrek Saar as suited to chair EKRE. Mart Laar and other politicians have been attacking EKRE. This negative publicity and constant demonization of EKRE apparently attracts the voters’ attention while there is no other news,”
He said that the main issue is presently the reliability of the voters EKRE has gained during the summer – are they the floating voters who can disappear in a critical moment or is EKRE actually increasing its core constituency.
Saarts also speculates that EKRE’s success could be interpreted as the dearth of alternatives for the conservative nationalist voters. “EKRE as a new protest party is definitely more attractive to the nationalist conservative voter than the old and failed parties like Pro Patria and the Free Party.”
The new leader of the Reform Party, Kaja Kallas, is steering the party towards classical liberalism, Saarts says, away from the nationalist conservative image it occupied during Andrus Ansip’s and Taavi Rõivas’ leadership.
Saarts does not believe that EKRE’s rising to the same level with the Center Party indicates a wider structural shift where EKRE would replace the Center Party as the main opponent of the Reform Party. Yet it cannot be ruled out in the long perspective, just like any shift in Estonian politics. “Hardly anyone could have predicted five or ten years ago that Pro Patria could drop down to the election threshold” he said.