The 29th of April marks the first full year for the second cabinet of Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (K-RE) in Estonia. The period has been one marked by remarkable turmoil and outrage within Estonian society—some of it justified and some of it less so. The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the looming economic crisis, surprisingly, marks a period of increasing national unity and potentially even solidarity. Although bringing up old grievances will take its toll, the crisis marks a potential for reflection on what happened during the last year.
In the March 2019 elections, the two parties traditionally dominating the Estonian political landscape, Reform Party (R-RE) and Centre Party (K-RE), won a comfortable victory with over 20% vote share each. The right-wing Conservative People’s Party (EKRE-ID) managed to come third with 18 percent of the vote. During the following months, the largest party, Reform, was bypassed in the government formation in what ultimately would result in the coalition of Centre Party, EKRE and Pro Patria (I-EPP), making EKRE the only right-wing ID Group party in the government of a EU member state.
Much has already been said about the formation of the coalition between Centre Party, EKRE and Pro Patria. However, a lot hasn’t been written about the later endeavours of this fairly unique government. How has an ID Group party fared in a position of responsibility? How has the cooperation between the coalition partners worked? Such are the themes explored below.
For EKRE, this past year has been marked by the continuing wish to don both the hat of a governmental party and that of an opposition protest party. The latter has also helped to fan the flames of many of the recent political crises, such as the attempt at sacking the Director General of the Police and Border Guard Board by the Minister of the Interior. Minister of Interior—a member of EKRE—did so in response to the Director General announcing to his employees that there would be cutbacks in the number of police officers due to the government’s plan, at the time, to return to a balanced budget. The handling of the listeria crisis that rocked the Estonian food industry had similar issues and led to the resignation of the Minister of Agriculture, also a member of EKRE, who was discovered to have exceeded his authority. This is not to even mention the game of musical chairs within the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Information Technology or the continuing tensions between the Government and the President.
Despite these and many more examples of what looks to be a government stepping from one internal crisis to another, very little, if anything, of what people feared out of a government including EKRE has actually realized, or is currently in the pipeline as far as we know. The press has remained free to criticize the Government and guard against perceived excesses, a right it has used willingly and seemingly without a fear of repression. Similarly, any grand plans for judicial reform, à la judges heads rolling, have remained a pipe dream with EKRE lacking control over the ministry. Even the referendum—planned to coincide with the local elections in 2021—on making marriage between a man and a woman constitutionally protected would have very little actual influence on the subject of same-sex partnerships, as the sex-neutral Cohabitation Law already makes a legal difference between a marriage and a cohabitation.
Much to the shock of many, it has not been Centre nor EKRE that has really benefited from the coalition, at least when it comes to achievements so far. Although both have managed to make themselves heard and push for change in their respective fields—such as the increasingly Keynesian economic actions and the direction of the Ministry of Finance, controlled by EKRE, or what some political commentators have deemed increased stalling of the educational integration process when it comes to the Ministry of Education—neither has really achieved much tangible results. Pension increases initiated Centre have proven to be small at best and much of EKRE’s hopes for pleasing their base are riding on the possibility of the future referendum.
The Centre Party—the largest in government—has neither been able to capitalise on their position. The formation of the coalition parallels that of the first Ratas cabinet—in power between 2016 and 2019 and consisting of I-EPP and SDE-S&D on top of Centre—which was also met with much criticism and outrage from the get go. Most of it was influenced by the lingering issues about which direction the “new” Centre Party was leaning geopolitically. These concerns were however quickly put to bed with Ratas taking an openly pro-Western outlook, although with some lingering questions such as the “frozen” cooperation agreement with Russia’s governing party, United Russia.
Although, as we now know, the stance led to weakening of Centre in its predominantly Russian speaking strongholds, the alignment did pave the way for Centre’s Return as an active player in the national politics. Contrary to the hopes of some, the Russophone base seems to have remained loyal to the Centre party, at least for the moment, with probably no small role being played by the failure of the opposition to capitalize on the fears of the Russophone population of a “nationalist” government. Internal squabbling by the Estonian population rather than a focus on integrating the Russophone people—who make up about a quarter of the population in Estonia—has also likely aided, as has the more socially conservative but economically interventionist policy. As mentioned before, however, Centre has very little to show in political achievements during the government. Successful handling of the medical and economic crises ongoing could definitely prove to be a star on their breast.
Subsequently, the mantle of actual achievements rests on the lap of Pro Patria, which has all but achieved the pension reform they promised, as well as even managing to at times showcase their softer nationalist credentials. The latter is largely the work of the Minister of Culture and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who are attempting to balance out the more coarse and “in your face” nationalism of EKRE, most visible in the Minister of the Interior’s fight against foreign workers. Only time will tell whether these achievements translate back into support for Pro Patria once the elections roll around again, or whether this parliamentary cycle will prove to be the last for them.
Polling average of Estonia
The current state of political affairs in Estonia is as much a result of the opposition as it is of the coalition; as such it would be unfair to only reflect on the actions of the latter and not cover the former. It would be wrong to say that the opposition has been lethargic, since at the time of writing the opposition has thrice attempted to express a vote of no confidence towards a member of the government, but has been met with a failure each time around. Of the two parliamentary opposition parties, the election-winning Reform Party as the largest opposition party has seemingly managed to maintain more relevance and has managed to stay in the public mind and in sight. Reform has been leading all of the current failed votes of no confidence and is among the first to make their voice heard when the government steps into another crisis.
Finally, out of the parliamentary parties, we have the Social Democratic Party (SDE-S&D), which has at times seemingly fallen off the political map and even managed to lose their anti-EKRE avant-garde position cultivated by the previous chairman. Likewise, the party also seems to have lost a drive for arguing for a green and quick PÕXIT—oil shale exit. The topic has increasingly been making rounds in Estonia due to the falling profitability of the domestic oil shale based energy sector, situated largely in the eastern and predominantly Russophone Ida-Viru county. As the region and those working in the sector are a vital part of the Centre’s political base and both Conservative parties consider energy independence of a vital importance, the plans for any quick PÕXIT have been dashed.
The defeat of all extra-parliamentary parties in the 2019 national parliament election has led to the Greens (G/EFA), ERE (NI) and EVA (*) to consider unification under one banner for the upcoming local elections in 2021. If luck is on their side, the disparate Estonian extra-parliamentary opposition might see a period of consolidation, possibly leading to a potential for Estonian Greens to return to the national parliament in 2023 elections. Although much of this is conjecture at this point.
Estonia 200 (→RE), the most successful extra-parliamentary party in the 2019 election, has seemingly gained steam recently. The phenomenon of E200 in the parliamentary cycle seems to be that of a protest party, a rather common thing in Estonian politics. Much of its success in the polls largely stems from the continued waning of SDE’s relevance and support. Despite the opening created by the waning SDE, the public presence of E200 party seems sporadic at best, even for an extra-parliamentary party. Any cultivated support is thus liable for fading away should its supporters discover that their hopes don’t align with what is being promised, or another attempt at shock and awe is made by the party to gain notoriety with little consideration for tone.
The first full year of the second Ratas cabinet has been one where little has changed but much is still different. Many feared that the inclusion of right-wing EKRE in the cabinet would lead to widespread upheaval of the established political mores as well as everyday life in Estonia. However, at the end of the first year, few of those fears seem to have materialised. Day to day life has been seemingly going on just as before, with a few more political “scandals” present. During a time of crisis, EKRE seems to have managed to finally abandon the hat of an opposition party. Whilst it of course remains to be seen whether the hat will remain shelved once the crisis ends, or whether politics will once again return to “interesting” times.