Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 37
7 June 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
Right-wing Socialists
An unlikely merger
Mel Huang

When the People's Party voted on 29 May to merge with the Moderates, a new political category emerged in Estonia: right-wing socialist. The paradoxical term gives a good indication of where the ideology behind the merger lies on any definable political spectrum. The two parties, no matter how they may superficially appear to be moving closer together, are not even remotely approaching each other.

From an ideological perspective, it may look odd that a merger of this sort is even possible. Tracing back several other mergers, the current result is even harder to imagine. In the end, however, it is perfectly clear why it happened.

First, the Moderates. Well-respected former Prime Minister Andres Tarand has led this centre-left party since its inception. The merger which created the Moderates came in 1996, when the Estonian Social Democratic Party and the Estonian Rural Centre Party officially merged (they had already been working together in the Riigikogu as the Moderates faction). The combined party brought together socialists (non-Communists) and left-leaning liberals. The party retained its membership in Socialist International and promoted itself as a centre-left force.

The People's Party, on the other hand, has a radically different origin. Several years ago, these Right-wingers broke away from the centre-right, Christian democratic Pro Patria Union due to dissatisfaction with the party's moderate views. Then there is the marginal Peasants' Party (the name is hard to translate, floating somewhere between "agrarian" and "country people"), which came to prominence when then (and current) Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves unexpectedly joined the party. The Princeton and Columbia University graduate soon took over the party leadership and negotiated a merger with the Right-wingers to create the People's Party. The party has a clear right-wing base, as well as an agrarian faction.

So how did these two opposing groups find reason enough to merge? How did the party which broke away from what is generally recognised to be the most right wing of the large parties choose to go with the socialists? The simple answer is political expediency. Also, Ilves would win back his foreign affairs portfolio. At that time the People's Party was little more than his personal vehicle, and merging with the Pro Patria Union would result in way too many chiefs - that is, egos - and possibly multiple presidential candidates.

The merger, when examined closer, appears to be more of an absorption by the Moderates. The party name remains the Moderates and the joint group retains its membership in Socialist International. Some years ago, the thought of being a member of Socialist International would have been anathema for Ilves.

Tensions remain. Before the general elections in March, the two parties had already decided to run on a single list under the name of the Moderates. At that time, prominent member of the former Right-wingers Mart Nutt quit the People's Party and rejoined Pro Patria Union - the party from which he and his colleagues once defected. The decision was highly symbolic, since by then all the parties had agreed to join forces after the election. Today, MP Nutt serves in the same coalition as Foreign Minister Ilves.

With the vote to merge taken by the People's Party, a significant chunk of the party rebels announced their decision to leave. Some hinted at following Nutt by joining the Pro Patria Union. But as Ilves stated, with any merger the existence of some dissatisfaction is "inevitable."

In the end, the merger spells not many changes and keeps all the top dogs happy. The socialists are happy to be in power, and Ilves is happy to be back in the Foreign Ministry. How long this contentment will last remains to be seen - especially after Ilves is dispatched to the Socialist International conference and forced to sing The Internationale underneath a flapping, red banner...

Mel Huang, 7 June 1999


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