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Estonia: Rise and Fall of the Centre Party

On 18 March 2024, the second-tier Tallinn district court found the Centre Party (KE-RE) guilty of influence peddling in Estonia. Should the Supreme Court agree with the decision, the party could be fined up to a million euros. This would be another damaging blow to the party that lost ten seats in the national parliament election last year and then another ten MPs to defections to other parties since the election, leaving the party with a measly six MPs out of the 101 sitting in the Riigikogu, the national parliament of Estonia.

To understand how the party, once described as largely shaping the politics of the Baltic country, managed to end up in such a devastating situation, we’d have to look back at the party’s origins and the combination of factors that led to the present circumstances.

Pro-independence roots

The party finds its roots in the quasi-political Popular Front movement of the late 1980s. It was initially founded to support the glasnost and perestroika policies that led to the liberalisation of the Soviet Union and eventually ending up as one of the central movements in the push for the restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1991. After Estonian independence was successfully restored, the movement became anachronistic and its then-leader Edgar Savisaar decided to form a proper party from the basis of the movement called the People’s Centre Party, very soon after renamed to the Centre Party as we know it today.

The Centre Party’s worldview has been often described as economically centre-left whilst the party has seldom taken a strong stance on any social issues, often letting its members vote their conscience on topics such as marriage equality. From a cultural standpoint, the party has been seen as trying to position itself as a reconciliatory force between the Estonian and Russophone populations, often falling victim to accusations of pro-Russia or pro-Kremlin views from parties leaning more strongly on the Estonian electorate. The party has historically been dominant among the Russophone electorate where it has derived most of its support.

These accusations took hold later, however, as in the 1990s and early 2000s, the party took part in several governments with various parties, including the liberal Reform Party (RE-RE) which would start to become the Centre Party’s main rival around the 2000s as the party landscape stabilised and the two parties emerged as the clear frontrunners, averaging around 25–35% in the polls and elections.

The rivalry was sustained by the parties making shockvertising appeals to their supporters, with the Centre Party often claiming itself to be the only political force to be able to topple the Reform Party, which had been in different sequential governments since 1999. Reform Party, in turn, would argue that a Centre Party victory could lead to pro-Russia forces leading the country. Especially so after Savisaar’s Centre Party signed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (YeR~ EPP|ID) party, blamed the government for inciting the 2007 riots over the movement of a Soviet-era monument in Tallinn—and remained neutral on the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.

These actions led to the Centre Party being effectively excluded from any potential government formations but didn’t significantly harm the support of the party as the Russophone electorate remained a consistent support base and Savisaar had established himself as a figurehead for Estonian protest voters.

U-turn after another

However, Savisaar’s own ground was not solid as discontent had been brewing within the party in the early 2010s due to what the internal opposition viewed as Savisaar’s authoritarian leadership style. The increasing support for change in the party combined with Savisaar’s removal from his position as mayor of Tallinn in 2015 that he had held since 2007. The developments culminated in an extraordinary party congress in 2016 in which he ended up not running for leadership, instead endorsing sitting MEP Jana Toom as his successor. The leadership contest was instead won by Jüri Ratas.

This was nationally a significant political earthquake as his election seemed to promise a more pro-Estonian direction for the party that has just recently taken ambiguous positions on topics such as Russia’s encroachments on Ukrainian territory. Yet at the same time Ratas promised to hold onto the party’s status as a reconciliatory bridge between Estonians and the Russian-speaking community in the country.

A month after his ascension to Centre Party’s leadership Jüri Ratas was already the 18th Prime Minister of Estonia after the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDE-S&D) and the centre-right Isamaa and Res Publica Union (IRL-EPP) ditched the government with the Reform Party in favour of one with the changed Centre Party. This marked the end of over 17 years of different governments with the Reform Party, including 11 years of Reform Party holding the premiership. It gave way to the first Centre Party Prime Minister since Savisaar’s interim time in power during the transitional period after the restoration of independence.

This change would force the Reform Party into opposition for nearly half a decade. At the same time, it paved the way for the slow erosion of one of the pillars of the Centre Party’s support. While the Reform Party won the 2015 election just as it had won every election since 2007, a new political force—the Conservative People’s Party, more commonly known by its acronym EKRE—managed to enter the Riigikogu with eight per cent of the vote.

EKRE capitalised on hardline conservative opposition to the then-government of the Reform Party and the Social Democrats. The party solidified its support even more as an anti-establishment force after the formation of the aforementioned Ratas government. By entering the government, the Centre Party had effectively given up its position as the perennial anti-establishment opposition and EKRE managed to fill that niche. The Centre Party did not lose a lot of support from that, however, as it gained the trust of Estonian voters who had previously been sceptical of the party under Savisaar’s leadership.

At that point, things were still looking up for the Centre Party as it was still battling the Reform Party for first place in the 2019 national parliamentary election. Even though polls seemed to suggest a toss-up, the Reform Party once again won. The Centre Party took second place and EKRE, in a surprise to many, rose to third.

Before the election, EKRE had been effectively ruled out of coalition formation by every party except Isamaa. Ratas had even claimed that ‘when I said before that it would be impossible for me to cooperate with a party which cuts heads off, doesn’t agree to certain nationalities or races, then EKRE has indeed said those things’. This seemed to suggest that the only possible coalitions that could be formed would require the Reform Party. However, Ratas surprised everyone by agreeing to start coalition talks with EKRE and Isamaa. This sent political shockwaves across not just Estonia but also Europe as a whole as it meant the inclusion of a (to-be) ID party in the government.

The backlash was immediate as the Centre Party lost eight percentage points of support in the European Parliament elections two months later. The party’s support declined to the low 20s but was still high enough to see the party in second place. The government with EKRE was tumultuous: EKRE kept a lot of the media’s attention on itself with frequent inflammatory statements by the party’s leaders and Ratas being frequently forced to confirm that these are EKRE’s own positions and not the government’s.

However, the government came to a sudden end in early 2021 as Ratas abruptly resigned as Prime Minister. As a reason he cited the State Prosecutor’s Office corruption charge against the Centre Party.

The government formed right after the dissolution was between the Reform Party and the Centre Party, the party whose leader had just stepped down from the premiership due to a corruption charge against the party. This meant that no longer was the main opposition either the Reform Party or the Centre Party as it had been for almost one and a half decades but EKRE, which saw its support nearly double and successfully overtake the Centre Party in the polls. The Centre Party’s support was no longer in the low 20s but instead in the mid 10s. This was problematic for the party but not existentially dangerous.

Internal polarisation on Russia

On 23 February 2022, the national parliament of Estonia held a vote condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine as Russia had amassed troops on the border of the country and recognised two breakaway puppet-states in Eastern Ukraine as independent. It has since been reported that Ratas desperately tried to whip his party members to vote for condemnation but as the vote concluded, nine MPs from the party had abstained. The following day, Russia invaded Ukraine and the party declared its strong condemnation of the attack as Ratas steered the party to firmly stand on the side of Ukraine. The party’s support declined to the mid-10s as its support among Russophone voters decreased. A few months later, the Centre Party would find itself in opposition again but to no avail. Later that year, Edgar Savisaar, the former leader of the party, passed away.

In the 2023 national parliamentary election, the party came in third with 15.3%, its worst result since 1995 when the party first independently contested the elections. EKRE overtook the party and placed second. The lesser-known United Left Party (EÜVP-LEFT), on a shared list with future members of Together (KOOS-*), a to-be party—whose co-leader Aivo Peterson is currently under investigation for ties to the Russian government—managed to clinch 2.4% of the vote.

The electoral list came close to almost winning a seat in the national parliament from the heavily Russophone Ida-Viru County district in northeastern Estonia. In 2019, the Centre Party won an absolute majority of votes there. In 2023, merely a quarter, losing almost half of its support to the aforementioned Aivo Peterson as well as independent candidate Mihhail Stalnuhhin, a Centre Party MP expelled from the party for labelling the government as ‘fascists’. Centre had gambled on supporting Ukraine and it cost the party the vote of those who had no problem with Russian aggression.

A few months later, an extraordinary party congress was convened where Jüri Ratas decided to not run for leadership, endorsing MP Tanel Kiik. Mihhail Kõlvart, the mayor of Tallinn who many speculated to have been long plotting to run for leadership, announced his candidacy. The election was widely seen as one between the Estonian and the Russophone factions of the party, with Kiik representing the former while Kõlvart was seen as representing the latter. The party that was built on being a bridge between the Estonians and Russophones was heading into a leadership election where the main division was shaped along those very lines.

In September 2023, Kõlvart won the election and became the third leader of the Centre Party. Media coverage and public perception widely saw this as the party returning to the old Russophone roots and, as a result, over the following months, ten out of the 16 Centre Party MPs defected to other parties, leaving the party at just six MPs, its lowest ever. One of the defectors was Kõlvart’s main opponent in the leadership election, Tanel Kiik, joining the Social Democrats. Another was former Prime Minister and former party leader Jüri Ratas, joining Isamaa.

On 26 March 2024, the Social Democrats left the government coalition in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and subsequently caused its dissolution. The Centre Party was earlier forced to strike a coalition agreement in the city following the 2021 local elections to remain in power after over 15 years of one-party rule. The Social Democrats leaving the coalition left the Centre Party in opposition in what was believed to be the party’s most influential remaining bastion of power in Estonia.

A synthesis: giving up everything that once made KE a relevant force in Estonian politics

The decline of the Centre Party has been a combination and a continuation of factors starting from Edgar Savisaar stepping back. The party entering government and giving up its protest party status, then forming a controversial government with EKRE, resigning abruptly over a corruption charge only to continue in the next government. Taking a necessary and firm pro-Ukraine stance in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a party trying to bridge the gap between Estonians and Russophiles, then going back and electing a leader who mainly targets the Russophone electorate in Tallinn and Ida-Viru County.

The Centre Party has hit an all-time low in support among the Estonian electorate. Almost all of the party’s support now comes from a subset of Russophone voters and the Europe Elects polling average has the party at 10%, lower than any election result in the party’s history. In a February 2024 poll conducted by Turu-uuringute AS, the party hit an all-time low of eight per cent. Should the Supreme Court agree with the second-tier court’s ruling convicting KE, the party could be hit with a million euro fine, a sum nearly equal to its yearly budget. The passage of time and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have diversified opinions among the Russian-speaking community in Estonia to the extent that Savisaar’s controversial approach of flirting with Russia is no longer electorally feasible. Barring significant changes in Estonia, it’s hard to see any way that the Centre Party would manage to become the dominant force it once was in the foreseeable future.