Analysis ⟩ The Reform Party dominates and the other parties are helpless (1)

Mikk Salu
, ajakirjanik
Photo: POOL/Olivier Douliery/Pool via REUTERS/Scanpix Baltics
  • Support to the Reform Party has exceeded 30 percent.
  • The Center Party’s rating has hit the lowest point in past two decades.
  • Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has been acting swiftly during the war and her popularity has skyrocketed

The war in Ukraine is changing the political parties’ landscape in Estonia. A major redistribution of support is in progress.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas announced yesterday that she supports compiling a black list of pro-Kremlin Russian performers, which means an entry ban to Estonia. This was triggered by a debate which has been going on for some time and concerns a possible Tallinn concert of the Russian singer Filipp Kirkorov, a supporter of Putin.

The city of Tallinn and the ministries have been bouncing the ball back and forth. Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets (Center Party) recently expressed her views: «I do not support a list of pro-Putin performers. Banning Kirkorov is too black-and white.»

«But things are black-and white in war,» Reform’s Kallas countered yesterday.

As such, the debate over Kirkorov may be relatively pointless. Just a detail. But its progress and final outcome are symptomatic. Here is an issue that is bounced from hand to hand like a hot potato (especially by the Center Party) and then the Prime Minister finally hits the ball served to her. Over the past two to three months, against the background of the war in Ukraine, such situations have happened consistently.

The result: the support of the Reform Party has risen to more than 30 percent. EKRE's backing remains relatively stable at 21 percent and the ratings of all other parties have fallen. The rating of the Center Party is at the lowest point over the last few decades. The long-lasting rise of Eesti 200 has come to an end and they too have turned their beak downward. Isamaa and the Social Democrats barely cross the five-percent threshold.

The notional turning point could be placed in the middle of January, when Kaja Kallas addressed the Riigikogu on the security situation. Let us remember that at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, there were a few moments when the Reform Party dropped to the third place in the parties’ support ranking after EKRE and the Center Party. However, since mid-January, the Reform Party has been steadily moving upwards. The same period also covers the decline of all other matters (corona, electricity prices, heating bills) and the rise of security issues, as well as the complete domination of the war issue since Russia's invasion in Ukraine on February 24.

It is not a very original observation, but security and war have shaped and will continue to shape the change in the Estonian political landscape. There is a big redistribution going on . As recently as at the beginning of the year, Kaja Kallas had a reputation of a failure among many voters (including those who sympathize with the Reform Party). A reputation of a weak leader. A reputation of being irresolute. It does not even matter whether the estimates were fair, but in any case they existed. The growth in the popularity of Eesti 200 was probably largely due to this. Eesti 200: we are like the Reform Party, but newer, better and more decisive.

Now, at the end of April, everything is different. Just like the Reform Party as a political party, Kaja Kallas has made a big leap as leader. A survey commissioned by Eesti Päevaleht and published a few days ago showed that Kallas' personal popularity has tripled in a couple of months. The Prime Minister is visible and has acted quickly during the war. The foreign media has discovered Kallas and now it is difficult to count all the places where she has been and spoken.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is a frequent speaker in the foreign media in connection with the war in Ukraine.
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is a frequent speaker in the foreign media in connection with the war in Ukraine. Photo: Kollaaž/Mihkel Maripuu

Similarly, the critical notes have have disappeared from the Estonian press. On the contrary. A few weeks ago, Eesti Ekspress published Eero Epner's extensive article about Kallas, after which even some Reformers sighed that it was a little embarrassing to read because it struck one as if the Reform Party had ordered an advertising article.

No competing approach

But all this is not the fault of the Reform Party or Kaja Kallas. Rather, it shows the current political situation. There is the Reform Party and then there are the others. The competing parties have not been able to find their voice during the war or offer a credible alternative. This does not mean that there is no alternative narrative at all. For example, Meelis Oidsalu has repeatedly criticized the decisions of the Reform Party's security and defense policy. One could agree with him or not, but these are at least considered viewpoints. However, Oidsalu is not a politician and there is no one among the politicians who has been able to express a security political approach competing with the Reform Party.

There have been individual efforts, but these do not make up a complete image. Some time ago, for example, the Center Party debated over the medium-range air defense, and although they eventually received a sort of promise to procure it, the party did not score any political points from the effort.

Postimees has already written about how the Center Party has managed to reorganize its ranks against the background of the Ukrainian war. Loones and Stalnukhins have been pushed out of sight. «If the Center Party had not been able to silence its internal contradictions, Kallas’ situation could have been much more difficult, because then she would have been asked whether the prime minister knows what is going on in the government and with whom she is in coalition,» says Raimond Kaljulaid, a former Center Party member and a current Social Democrat. This has brought a paradoxical result. Jüri Ratas has disciplined the party, but has not benefited from it himself; instead, he has made it easier for Kallas to rule.

Personal efforts make no difference

At the personal level, of course, there are those who stand out more in wartime. EKRE’s Leo Kunnas is constantly speaking out on the subject of war. Riho Terras from Isamaa has become visible again. Mihhail Lotman and Urmas Reinsalu have visited Ukraine more often than any other Estonian politician during the war. Even Jüri Ratas arrived in Kiev in March, when the Russian troops were still besieging the city – a display of initiative and courage.

And yet these personal efforts have not made the least change in the big picture of Estonian politics. The Reform Party rules and the Reform Party dominates.

The position of the Reform Party is so good that they are not even afraid of finding themselves in the opposition. Should this happen (which is unlikely in itself), they could take off gloves and punch even harder. They are somewhat hampered by the fact that they must be in government with the Center Party. «We would nail the agreement with United Russia to the forehead of the Center Party. We would slam EKRE with the words about a Russian province», a Reform member describes what they would do when in the opposition.

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