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Sunday, March 7, 2021

Estonia’s far-right leader is down but not out

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In Estonia, far-right party leader Martin Helme is already plotting his comeback.

After two turbulent years in power, his anti-immigrant Conservative People’s Party, better known by its acronym EKRE, wasn’t invited to join a new coalition sworn in on Tuesday. New Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, of the center-right Reform Party, said a lack of overlap on basic values meant the parties could not work together.

Helme responded by sketching a roadmap back to government just days after being booted out of office.

He reckons that with a strong showing in local elections in October he can rattle the new government and build momentum for his party ahead of national elections in 2023. That’s when he believes EKRE can once again secure control of Estonia’s policy agenda.

“There is a feeling out there that now we have been pushed back into opposition, we will be there for years and years; ha ha, no we won’t,” Helme said in an interview.

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“We have two years until the next parliamentary election and we are building to become the biggest political party by then and then get a chance to form the government,” he said.

A recent poll carried by national broadcaster ERR gave Helme some reason for optimism, with EKRE seeing a rise in support in January to 17 percent from 15 percent in December. However, Reform remained well ahead on 27 percent with the Center Party — also in government — on 20 percent. 

To create and lead a stable government, EKRE will likely need to not only leapfrog its rivals but also strike alliances with one or more of them. There is plenty of evidence in the experiences of far-right parties in neighboring states to suggest that such a process could be difficult. 

The Sweden Democrats party, which has its roots in the 1990s neo-Nazi movement, has proven popular with voters, allowing it occasionally even to top opinion polls. However, its refusal to soften the very hard anti-immigration stance that has driven its popularity has so far left it without allies and stuck in perpetual opposition. 

Meanwhile, the far-right Finns Party built strong voter support in the run-up to an election in 2015 only to see that support ebb away once the party began to compromise with coalition partners in order to retain its place in government. 

Helme’s strategy appears to be closer to the Sweden Democrats’ model, fueled by his belief that a no-compromise approach will win him so much support that other parties will be forced to deal with him. 

“No one takes us to the government or includes us in the government because we are nice people, or because we sound or look like them,” he said. “They include us because they have to.”

While experts expect a return to opposition to be positive for EKRE’s ratings, they also question whether the support for the party’s policy stance — which is characterized by tough border controls and social conservatism — really is there for them to surge to greater heights. 

“For EKRE, it’s a good thing, of course, to be in opposition now; they will certainly be vocal from the sidelines,” said Vello Pettai, a political scientist at Estonia’s University of Tartu. “But it may be that their novelty has worn off.”

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EKRE emerged as a real force in Estonian politics in 2019 when it came third in a general election. 

But the bigger surprise came when the second-placed Center Party and the fourth-placed center-right party Fatherland invited EKRE into a coalition, shutting out the winner, Reform. 

Center Party leader Jüri Ratas remained prime minister, while Helme became finance minister and his father Mart interior minister. 

For many in the Estonian establishment, it was a shocking turn of events. A statement by the younger Helme on Estonian television in 2013 that “blacks should go back” was heavily criticized, and at the government’s swearing-in ceremony, the Helmes appeared to make a white supremacist gesture

In the interview, the party leader denied accusations of racism or xenophobia. 

“This is the laziest sort of criticism that one can come up with,” Helme said. “We know that the open-borders crowd and the diversity crowd always say that anyone who is not on board with their plans to destroy nation states and to destroy coherent populations within the nation states are racist; I don’t care at all about this criticism,” he said. 

Helme said his arguments against immigration are not racist but are instead based in “socio-economic, cultural, security-based facts” rather than the “fuzzy slogans” of his opponents. 

It was clear that new prime minister Kallas was seeking to distance her government from the previous coalition, which she and others, including leaders of the country’s high-flying tech sector, say have damaged Estonia’s standing abroad.

“We will again build our relations with our allies, our neighbors, and we will try to restore our name as a good country to invest in,” she said after her swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, Helme said EKRE will look to inflict damage on the governing parties at the first opportunity: the local elections in October. 

“We will have all kinds of nasty surprises in store for them,” he said. 

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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