Scandal on Toompea: a fresh start for Estonia?4 min read
In Washington, D.C., officials and policymakers spent much of January preparing for the inauguration of Joe Biden. The soon-to-be President is still busy assembling his Cabinet and developing the plans for his first 100 days in office. While one government was quickly coming together to turn an important corner in American politics, halfway across the world, another government was falling to pieces. On January 13, Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas resigned from his role following corruption allegations against his party, the Estonian Centre Party, leading to the collapse of the ruling coalition.
Many in Estonia celebrated the November election of Joe Biden as a positive pivot in world politics, welcoming an American leader that is seen by experts as a stabilizing force after years of an unpredictable Trump presidency. Some even suggested the results of the US Presidential Election could portend a return to progressivism for Estonia, which experienced a late surge in far right power, mostly attributed to the rise of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE). EKRE party leaders are responsible for a long list of controversies that have marred the ruling coalition and undermined the fragile partnership established in 2019 between the Centre Party, a right-leaning party named Isamaa, and the notorious EKRE. From promoting white power symbols to making racist statements to using their party media to attack independent journalists and suppress freedom of speech, EKRE eroded Estonia’s liberal reputation and spurred intense criticism from the public.
As a result, few could have predicted that it would be Ratas’ own party, and not EKRE, that would lead to the downfall of the government. According to Estonian media organization ERR, “news emerged earlier this month that the Internal Security Service (ISS) was investigating the offices of state credit agency KredEx over suspicions of corruption regarding a €39-million loan granted to the Porto Franco real estate development in Tallinn’s harbor district.” Although Juri Ratas is not a subject of the investigation by the ISS, the Centre Party will most likely be held liable in the public’s eye given that the party headed the government responsible for the loan. According to the Estonian Constitution, the resignation of the Prime Minister triggers the automatic dissolution of the ruling coalition. Now, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid has asked Kaja Kallas, the chairwoman of the Estonian Reform Party, to form a new government in the next 14 days.
The past few days in Tallinn have been tumultuous, but if anything is clear amidst the chaos, it is that the Reform Party is eager to take this opportunity to sideline EKRE and to bring some degree of normalcy back to Estonia. However, the Reform Party faces an uphill battle not unlike the one that President Joe Biden will confront when trying to bring unity and prosperity back to a deeply-divided United States. Not only is the country experiencing a new spike in COVID-19 cases that will put immense pressure on Kallas to act urgently, but the Reform Party needs to find a cooperative and compatible partner to join their coalition.
The Reform Party holds the highest number of seats in the Estonian Parliament, but they will still need to secure 15 more seats by way of a new coalition in order to hold a majority. The Social Democratic Party, a likely ally, only holds 11 seats in Parliament. Recently, the Reform Party entered into negotiations with the Centre Party. Unfortunately, there is a long history of bitterness between the two parties, and the tension was only further enhanced when Juri Ratas denied Kallas the chance to become Estonia’s first female Prime Minister in 2019. The discussions between the two parties promise to be strained, which does not bode well when it comes to establishing a robust coalition with clearly-defined goals and priorities.
Lastly, if there is anything to learn from recent events in the United States, it is that far-right populism is alive and well. More people voted for President Trump in 2020 than did in 2016, evidence that Western leaders can get away with any number of hostile or offensive comments without losing entire voting blocs. Similarly, EKRE is not going away anytime soon and Kallas will have to contend with loud populist leaders with a strong voter base.
The party’s polling numbers have not changed too dramatically since the 2019 Riigikogu elections, even after their series of scandals. As of 27 November 2020, EKRE was polling at 15.3% of the vote according to the polling organization Europe Elects, compared to about 17.8% of total voters who cast their vote for EKRE in 2019. Maybe more significant is the fact that EKRE is the only major Estonian party not in financial debt. They even managed to increase their party membership since 2019 and have reported a steady flow of donations, evidence that EKRE supporters are mostly loyal and unyielding.
It is more than likely that EKRE will remain a force to be reckoned with well into the next Estonian national elections, and the next Prime Minister of Estonia will need to find a way to either work with EKRE or diminish their influence.