TALLINN - Tension over the nomination of a candidate for prime minister has threatened to split the two parties in Estonia's recently-formed conservative union. The friction mounted on Oct. 14, when members of the two center-right parties, Pro Patria and Res Publica, began suggesting that the merger may dissolve.
Mart Laar, the former prime minister and leader of Pro Patria, has emerged as the favorite candidate to lead the united parties into next year's general elections, ahead of Res Publica's Jaak Aaviksoo, the outgoing rector of Tartu University.
Laar was named as the prime ministerial candidate by a united board meeting of the two parties on Oct. 16, following a series of heated letters published in the Estonian press.
In one of the letters, Aaviksoo claimed Pro Patria had threatened to walk away from the coalition if Laar was not selected as leader.
Laar is certainly the more prominent of the two candidates. As former prime minister, he has earned much credit for installing Estonia's flat tax system and creating the economic conditions for the nation's growing prosperity. He has already served two terms in office, the first between 1992 and 1994, and again between 1999 and 2002.
However, his party is the junior member in the conservative union. Pro Patria holds just seven seats in the Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament), while Res Publica holds 25. In seeking to lead the union to the next election, Laar is asking Res Publica's members to bank on his reputation ahead of the weight of their own party, which by rights should have the power to install its own leader in Stenbock House.
It seems that his gamble has paid off, but not without much wrangling between the parties.
The merger of Res Publica and Pro Patria heralded a new beginning for the conservatives, who have been in exile as the opposition party since 2005. The parties came together in May 2006 in an effort to destabilize the current governing coalition of the Reform Party, the Center Party and the People's Union.
And yet, the two parties are already showing signs of a split.
Although the conservatives once hoped that a merger would encourage public support for a change of government, they now appear to be on shaky ground. Their official merger documents have yet to be turned into the electoral authorities.
The stand-off was somewhat resolved when Aaviksoo offered to give Laar the leadership under certain conditions, among them that the merger documents be submitted.
"If this proposal is not acceptable, one has to start looking for other solutions," said Aaviksoo, who previously told The Baltic Times that he would be happy to occupy other important positions in the party if he was not backed as a PM candidate.
"It is clear that marrying different parties is more complicated than marrying people."
The spat has angered many party members, among them Res Publica's Ene Ergma, deputy speaker of Parliament.
"I'm very sad about what is going on at the party," Ergma said, "We ought to be busy getting ourselves ready for elections, not quarreling and taking our quarrels into the media."
For his part, Laar denied threatening to dissolve the union and accused Res Publica's chairman Taavi Veskimagi of lying in the media.
"I deeply regret what is going on," Laar said, "I hope that the merger of Res Publica and Pro Patria will be carried out despite everything. In what manner it will happen, the near future will show."
The decision to select Laar ahead of Aaviksoo is expected to be endorsed by a meeting of the parties' extended policy-making board on Oct. 21.