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Estonian parties face internal struggles

  • 2010-07-07
  • By Helga Kalm

Juri Pihl, current chairman of Social Democratic Party and Karel Ruutli, former chairman of People’s Union of Estonia.

TALLINN - This spring Estonian local politics have been in turmoil, with the People’s Union of Estonia falling apart and the Estonian Greens and Social Democratic Party facing severe leadership crises. All the parties are small, therefore reaching the 5 percent threshold of votes is especially important to them. Tough decisions need to be made to show a strong image in the general elections in March 2011.

The People’s Union of Estonia, representing agrarian interests, is on the verge of falling apart. The party has lacked vision since its leaders Villu Reiljan and Ester Tuiksoo were accused of corruption. Karel Ruutli, the party’s new leader, has proved to be incapable of guiding the party through the crisis. He tried to save the party by merging with the Social Democratic Party, the failure of which left the party without a leader.

The merger of the two parties was the idea of the new generation in the People’s Union of Estonia, as several older members believed the party to be capable of surviving on its own. The divide between generations became even more obvious when leaders of the older generation, Reiljan, Mai Treial and Tuiksoo, deposed Ruutli as chairman of the faction in Riigikogu.

Even though the older generation opposes the younger one, none of the leaders of the older generation are willing to run themselves during the general elections. Reiljan, after being found guilty by the Supreme Court, decided to quit politics. Even though new Chairman Juhan Aare has been elected, over 240 people have left the party already, including former Chairman Ruutli, Vice Chairmen and members of parliament Jaanus Marrandi, Jaan Ounapuu and former Minister of Culture Jaak Allik. Several people have joined the Social Democratic Party.

Political analyst Tonis Saarts points out that the People’s Union reputation is low, several big names have already left the party and the financial situation is critical. He adds that the new leader should master the art of political miracles to bring the party out of their inner struggles. Miracles, on the other hand, are extremely rare. Aare, who has been inactive in Estonian politics for a while, will definitely have a hard time bringing the party together again.

The Social Democratic Party, on the other hand, is unsure of its current leader, Juri Pihl. Pihl became the center of attention in December 2009, when he sent a letter to Estonian Security Police accusing Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Paet and Minister of Justice Rein Lang of treason to the state. Several members of the party felt disappointed that he acted alone, without having discussions with the party. There have been complaints that after the scandal he has just disappeared, and has not done much to improve the image of himself or the entire party.

At the same time, several members of the party are still dissatisfied with the fact that the Social Democratic Party joint a coalition as the smaller partner with the Estonian Center Party in the Tallinn Municipality. Even though this was the regional committee’s decision, Pihl is still seen as a key factor in the decision since he, as newly elected leader, influenced the whole party towards the decision. The coalition in itself is not popular among the more educated electorate, who traditionally have been supporters of the Social Democratic Party.

Political analyst Rein Toomla thinks that the Social Democrats’ position is still strong. Nevertheless, there has been a lot of talk about other possible candidates for the party leader’s position as Sven Mikser and Indrek Saar both have agreed to run for the seat. None of them is an ideal candidate, as Mikser is an expert on foreign politics and Saar is a new face in politics and has not yet specialized in any one concrete area of interest. 

Andres Tarand, member of the Social Democratic Party and former member of the European Parliament, believes that the General Assembly of the party, held in the beginning of autumn, will most likely elect a new leader, wrote Eesti Paevaleht in June. At the same time, Saarts believes that the Social Democrats’ problem is internal and relates to some members’ dissatisfaction with the current leader and his political choices. He believes that that party’s current position is rather good, and changing the leader would show the electorate that the party in unsure of itself. Also, establishing a new leader takes time and is, all in all, not worth the risk.

Clearly, the Social Democrats are not in as bad a situation as the Estonian Greens or the People’s Union of Estonia; they will clearly exceed the 5 percent threshold and the party is not heavily torn. Several powerful and popular former members of the People’s Union of Estonia have joined the Social Democrats. Their biggest problem in that sense is rather positively absorbing the newcomers. New members will definitely shift the power structures in the party. Saarts says that the question is rather whether the leader can keep the balance so that old members will not succumb to their individual ambitions. Toomla, on the other hand, points out that the Social Democrats should keep in mind that each absorption has a critical limit.

The Estonian Greens is the smallest and newest of the parties. The last general elections were their first, and they appeared as a fresh and innovative party. Similarly to the People’s Union of Estonia, they have problems with leadership; old leaders have run out the new ones. The Estonian Greens decided to overcome their struggles by changing their leadership.

The party has always been clearly divided into two groups. In autumn 2009, the power shifted from Marek Strandberg’s group to the other, leaving his wing with only 3 of the 13 board member seats. Strandberg managed to put the elections in front of the court, which declared them void, allowing his group to take power again. In April, more oil was added to the fire when 20 active members were thrown out of the party. After a party summit on May 26, these members were taken back into the party and an agreement was reached. Several members of the Estonian Greens were disappointed in such behavior. Since their electorate consists mainly of supporters of green ideology, this sort of political manipulation drove them further away from the party. The party’s leaders plan to get 11 seats during next elections is clearly a dream, says Toomla.

All in all, the important question is whether the parties will pass the threshold in the upcoming elections. Clearly, the same question is the key behind the inner struggles; everybody believes to know the best answer to it, leading to a clash of opinions. Small parties’ inner struggles, on the other hand, are beneficial for large parties such as the Estonian Reform Party, Estonian Center Party and Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica, who will most likely get more seats in the parliament. Now that the People’s Union of Estonia’s union with the Social Democratic Party has failed and Estonian Greens have a new First Speaker, and the People’s Union a new Chairman, they need to show themselves strong in order to pass the threshold. Failure in doing so will strongly affect the overall outcome of the elections in March.