What happens if all become national conservatives?
Everyone who studies about the right-wing parties in Central and Eastern Europe would be astonished by the fact that the majority of these parties are conservative parties, more precisely national conservatives, putting emphasis on nationalism, ethnicity, traditional values, etc. There are almost no Christian Democrats and very few parties have retained their true liberal roots. Let’s consider, for example, the major political parties in the Baltic States – the Unity in Latvia, Homeland Union in Lithuania, the Reform Party in Estonia – they are all national conservative parties in fact.
There is a large oversupply of national conservative parties, particularly in Estonia, of which four out of six represented in Riigikogu belong to that ideological family. Two of them declare it officially in their party manifestos (Estonian National Conservative Party - EKRE and Pro Patria and Res Publica Union - IRL) and the remaining two (the Estonian Reform Party and Free Party) are constantly flirting with national conservative ideas.
EKRE could be considered even as an extreme-right populist party. IRL represents a brand of conservatism that has some neo-liberal elements in it, but the party is still firmly pro-european. The Estonian Reform Party has been mistakenly regarded as a classical neo-liberal party. True, it was a neo-liberal party until the mid-2000’s, but since then, it has tried to appeal to the nationalistic, conservative and anti-russian voters, and now the notion “national-liberals” describes the Reform Party’s ideology much better. The Estonian Free Party is a newcomer: it was established in 2014 and won 8 per cent of the seats in the parliament in the last elections (2015). The party is still struggling to find its true ideological identity. They talk about “free conservatism” and almost nobody understands what that really means. Is it a conservatism mixed with some green and left-liberal ideas (grass-root democracy, emancipation and communities?), or a blend between neoliberalism and conservatism, or something else? But regardless the ideological confusion, they often use national conservative rhetoric and that ideology seems to be the only glue that really binds the party together.
Considering the overpopulation in the right-wing national conservative ideological niche, it is not very surprising that some parties are in serious trouble and fighting for their survival. Both IRL and Free Party have seen a drop in their public support (support to IRL is about 6 per cent, which is very close to the electoral threshold that makes the situation very dire for the party). Both parties have their internal struggles and they have just recently changed the leaders.
At first glance, the future of the Free Party seems to be brighter. So far, the party has not lost as many voters as IRL, but it is clear the party’s newness alone is not really an attraction for voters anymore. There is a need to find a more solid ideological ground, because “free conservatism” as a mere slogan and a bundle of contradictory ideas will not serve the party very well and not for very long. However, the main challenge is to build up a proper party organization. All the major established parties in Estonia have quite strong party organizations – they usually have their own party branches, almost in every small municipality. But not Free Party, which is still one of the smallest parties in Estonia. The weakness of the party organization and the ideological convictions (the anti-party and anti-establishment sentiments which are also rampant in the party and makes it somewhat populist) led to the decision that the party would not come out with its own party list at the upcoming local municipality elections (in October this year), but party members run in the ranks of multiple local citizens unions. It means that voters might forget about the party, because the party brand will not be exposed to them in the upcoming elections. Many commentators have considered it as a serious strategic mistake. Nevertheless, the trump card for the party might be its newly elected leader Artur Talvik, who is charismatic, rebellious and has considerable public popularity. Maybe he will be able to renew the party and give it new hope.
IRL is in even more serious trouble. Decreasing popularity made many prominent party members too nervous and they decided to change the party leader. The former chairman, Margus Tsahkna, who wanted to reform the party, was forced to step down and now there is a growing internal strife within the party. Two candidates for the leader have emerged: Kaia Iva, the current Minister of Social Protection and the first prominent female politician in the history of this ultramale-dominated party, and Helir-valdor Seeder, the former Minister of Agriculture, as a typical old-school national conservative. If Iva wins, the party will probably attract some new, younger and more open-minded voters, but the “old boys establishment” within the party would not accept the female upstart, and it would be a serious challenge for Iva to get control over the party. Seeder, on the contrary, is not able to attract new voters, but he is probably better at holding the conservative core voters and asserting his authority over the party.
Nevertheless, IRL is a grand old party in Estonian politics (Mart Laar’s party) and perhaps its strong party organization and political professionalism enable him to survive. We will never know. But what seems to be clear: there has to be a healthy ideological balance in every party system – even in new post-communist democracies like Estonia. Regardless the fact that many voters are national conservatives indeed, all politicians cannot afford to follow the flock. Some may be trampled down if they do.
“There is a large oversupply of national conservative parties, particularly in Estonia, of which four out of six represented in Riigikogu belong to that ideological family. Two of them declare it officially in their party manifestos (Estonian National Conservative Party - EKRE and Pro Patria and Res Publica Union - IRL), and the remaining two (the Estonian Reform Party and Free Party) are constantly flirting with national conservative ” ideas.