What hap­pens if all be­come na­tional con­ser­va­tives?

The Baltic Times - - FRONT PAGE - Tõ­nis Saarts is a Po­lit­i­cal Sci­en­tist at Tallinn Univer­sity’s School of Gov­er­nance, Law and So­ci­ety

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.

Tõ­nis Saarts

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