Estonia gets a new leader

While Italy’s government crisis has got most of the publicity, Estonia has also started the year by losing a prime minister. Jüri Ratas, who had been in the job since 2016, resigned three weeks ago due to a corruption scandal and has now been replaced by Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s first female prime minister.

To understand the politics of the change, it’s necessary to look first at Estonia’s last election, held not quite two years ago. Five parties won seats; centre-left, centre-right, far right, and two rival parties occupying the centre of the spectrum: Ratas’s Centre Party, which tends to be populist and is supported by the Russian minority, and the Reform Party, rather more liberal and free-market.

The Centre Party had previously been in coalition with both centre-left and centre-right, but at the election those three parties lost their combined majority. So Ratas kept the centre-right (called “Fatherland”) in the tent, dispensed with the centre-left (who, in keeping with the trend at the time, had done particularly badly) and in their place took in the far-right Conservative People’s Party (EKRE).

That was a controversial move; other liberal parties were highly critical of Ratas. It was also surprising, since Centre’s largely Russian-speaking constituency would seem a poor fit with the Estonian ethno-nationalism of EKRE. There were troubles within the new coalition from the start.

In time it became a major embarrassment for Estonia, which had hitherto been regarded as one of the major success stories of democracy in eastern Europe. EKRE spent much of last year pushing for a referendum to outlaw same-sex marriage, with its then interior minister suggesting that Estonia’s gays should move to Sweden.

EKRE’s leaders also professed great admiration for Donald Trump, and perhaps for that reason – or perhaps just through being in coalition with a pro-Russian party – have also started to sound more sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, despite their historic antagonism to everything Russian.

All the same, it wasn’t anything EKRE did that eventually brought down the government. It was officials of the Centre Party, including its secretary-general, who were accused of influence-peddling, securing a government-guaranteed loan to property developer Hillar Teder in return for financial contributions. Ratas quickly decided that his position was untenable and tendered the government’s resignation.

President Kersti Kaljulaid promptly invited Reform leader Kallas to form a government. With EKRE, by common consent, out of the picture, she had two options to construct a majority: either to draw in both centre-left and centre-right, or to partner with Centre. She chose the second option, and last week the two parties announced agreement on the formation of a new government.

EKRE’s leadership is indignant, claiming that it was being unfairly blamed and that Ratas had been looking for excuses to get rid of it. Ratas himself will not take a portfolio, but has apparently been slated to become the next speaker of parliament. The new prime minister promises to “embark on a diplomatic mission to regain trust among the country’s allies and assure them of Estonia’s new political course.”

With two years to go until the next election, the government has plenty of time to establish itself, provided its two halves can work together. Recent polls show their support largely unchanged from the last election, as is EKRE’s; Fatherland has been the main loser, with Estonia 200 – another centrist party, which just missed out on winning seats last time – making big gains.

So on the evidence so far, Estonia’s democracy has survived the far-right experiment and remains a sound example for its neighbors. Let’s hope that’s a good omen for the rest of 2021.

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