Clash of Titans or a Dwarf Boxing Match?

Clash of Titans or a Dwarf Boxing Match?
Vsevolod Jürgenson, Estonian Politician

As the last year came to a close, the marginalization of the Centre Party has brought about an expectation that changes will finally begin to occur on Estonia’s stagnant political landscape. Public attention, which until now had focused on Kaja Kallas' blunders, shifted to the decline of the Centre Party following the Kõlvart-Ratas power struggle. For the Reform Party, this seemed like a divine Christmas gift, staining the leading force of the government with unsightly smears. However, not only they stand to benefit from the central party’s decline but primarily the Social Democrats, who have finally, at least ostensibly, exchanged their humiliating role as the lapdog of the Reform Party in Toompea and the Centre Party in Tallinn for the honorable role of a bold caretaker of the people. The meteoric rise of Isamaa also means unprecedented opportunities for them to extend their influence, especially if Jüri Ratas, the dancing lion, should decide to throw his lot with them. Everyone, except the members and supporters of the Centre Party, is thrilled and waiting for the drama the central acting troupe is capable of delivering in the near future and which parties will score the most points from this game.

The key to the Centre Party's fall lies in the cult of the leader.

To ask what exactly happened in the Centre Party would be pointless to blame Ratas or Kõlvart. Let's be honest, both men did their best and sincerely believed that everything they did was in the interest of the party. However, they did not consider that to truly influence what happens in the Centre Party, decisions must be based on the norms set by their legendary predecessor Edgar Savisaar.

More than in any other Estonian party, the cult of the leader is coded into the Centre Party. In Savisaar's days, it was clear who makes decisions, who plans the next developments – he himself. Savisaar was and will remain for a long time one of the most remarkable Estonian political legends, whom attitudes over the years have tended to either idolize or hate. It was from this leader-centricity that the Centre Party drew its strength during its heyday.

There were even days when Savisaar's position seemed unshakable, the bold ones who wanted to bring changes to the party's agenda either left or apologized to the leader and continued as obedient followers. Savisaar was the party and the party was his image. Of course, one can theorize whether bringing the Centre Party to rule the city-state of Tallinn showed Savisaar's strength or weakness, but that is not important in this context.

A ploy to Savisaar.

Youth has always opposed the old and tradition-holding, and so it was even in the Centre Party. At one point, the blow came from where Savisaar least expected it. The vigorous performance of Jüri Ratas and Kadri Simson made the impossible possible and pushed the previous sole leader from his position. Human factors also played their role here, as the political father could not mistrust his most talented children. A father's love has previously misled great figures, and so it happened with Savisaar. At one point, he faced the fact that the students had taken a seat in his chair and, what most bruised his self-awareness, the hitherto obedient party accepted the palace coup.

By offering Savisaar the position of honorary chairman, it would have been possible to maintain the status quo in the party, which would have meant continuing the party with smaller losses and without the risk of marginalization, but the power seekers trusted their strength too much to go for it, and the former leader was too offended to accept the honorary position as a gesture of mercy. That Savisaar is a mere mortal and can make mistakes was shown by the failure of the Savisaar list in the local elections.

The Centre Party's growing apart.

Most of the top of the Centre Party was accustomed to the strong hand of the chairman and his vigorous management style. Jüri Ratas brought a much softer style with him, but also a more indifferent attitude to the problems of party members. Over time, it became clear that the Centre Party is no longer a united political association as in Savisaar's time. Democracy is a double-edged sword and freedom can at one point turn into letting go. Yes, Ratas brought the party to the government and fulfilled one of his youth dreams by becoming prime minister, but the price was the emergence of different wings and the party's split into groups working for the good of the Republic of Estonia on one hand, and for the benefit of the city of Tallinn on the other. This rift deepened further. Regional organizations, which suddenly felt the refreshing breath of freedom replacing the mandatory execution of orders from the head office that excluded criticism, squeezed themselves between these centers of power.

It cannot be denied that our domestic politics has reached a state where the popularity of party leaders unfortunately depends on what they currently have to offer the party elite. As long as Ratas' wing could hope for government positions, his popularity within the party remained relatively high. However, when the government was surprisingly quickly disbanded after the Porto Franco water glass scandal at the Prime Minister's decision, Ratas' popularity within the party began to plummet rapidly, and in contrast, the rating of Mihail Kõlvart, who had time to meet with party members, listen to them, and support them, rose significantly. Meanwhile, Ratas focused on questionable TV projects and Instagram posts, which brought doubts among the members accustomed to the party's serious image.

Estonia needs politicians dedicated to a purpose.

Thus, the final act of decline arrived. Jüri Ratas was offended that he was no longer taken seriously within the party and broke under the pressure exerted by the increasingly strong wing led by Kõlvart. It can only be explained by offense why he nominated the capable and energetic Tanel Kiik as a candidate for chairman, although Kiik lacks the necessary top decision-maker material. The result was unexpected – the support group united behind Kõlvart and Ratas' leadership mistakes led to the final break of the mythical bond with Savisaar within the party through his political disciple Jüri Ratas, and the reins of leadership were taken over by Kõlvart, who had already risen to the de facto leader before the congress.

And here, Ratas behaved similarly to Savisaar. Offended, he has kept a low profile since the congress, occasionally coming out with venomous statements against his home party. Ratas may have intended to lead the party alongside Kiik by nominating him as chairman, only to take back power after some time, but after failing in this, he is not rushing to apply his knowledge and skills for the good of the party, but rather favors its dismantling. It would be strange if he did not know about significant party members leaving for Isamaa and the Social Democrats.

Estonian politics has turned from a battle of gladiators for great goals into a dwarf boxing match, where personal accounts are settled. This is the case with the destructive collision in the Centre Party at the moment, but the same series includes the word battles between the Kallas-Ansip line in the Reform Party. Offense, human envy, unwillingness to see farther goals, have caused a war in the Centre Party, and soon a similar battle for position can be expected in the Reform as well. We stand at the threshold of an interesting political year, where long-time players are running out of steam, and new actors are expected to replace them, who should not be any Eesti200-like drones ready to rush into battle like eagles, which every boy can shoot down with a slingshot.

We can only be sure of one thing – with or without the Centre Party, Estonia faces serious challenges that must not be approached following the example of dwarfs, but it is time to end obstruction and replace it with a vision for the future of our country. For this, however, we need truly great-hearted politicians.

Vsevolod Jürgenson