Gay Marriage, Corruption, and Credibility – dethroning the far-right in Estonia7 min read

 In Analysis, Baltics, Politics
Almost two years after the Estonian Centre Party’s decision to go into coalition with the far-right Estonian Conservative Nationalist Party (EKRE), the Prime Minister Jüri Ratas stepped down amid a corruption scandal implicating his party’s financing. The reasons behind such a decision are, however, more varied and relate to the scandals tarnishing the image of the coalition government, both internally and externally.

After an hours-long meeting with the party leadership, Jüri Ratas announced his resignation as prime minister of Estonia in the early hours of 13 January. The day before that, the public prosecutor had publicly implicated the general secretary of his party, the Estonian Centre Party, of being involved in suspicious donations to the party, in preparation for the upcoming municipal elections. As Ratas explained his decision to step down, he asserted that he had no knowledge of such activities, yet was willing to take responsibility. The same day, new coalition talks were announced between the Centre Party and the Reform Party, the largest parliamentary political force. So how exactly did things end up this way?

EKRE’s clash with the mainstream

At the centre of these developments is EKRE. Their rise to become the defining force of Estonian politics started back in 2014 when the government of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas passed legislation regarding the right of same-sex couples to form civil partnerships. EKRE quickly became the head of the opposition to such developments – co-organizing large-scale demonstrations and articulating the conservative viewpoints on the issue. Over time, EKRE took up other nationalist-populist causes – dislike towards migrant workers from Ukraine, the ‘deep state’, memory politics, euroscepticism, etc. While the civil partnerships legislation has mostly subsided, EKRE has been adamant on reaching a more definitive conclusion to this topic.

As EKRE became the member of the governing coalition in 2019, it demanded a referendum be held on gay marriage in 2020. Legally different from the civil partnerships, EKRE has maintained that only through changing the definition of marriage in the constitution to be strictly between a man and a woman can it be spared from the liberal winds of change. It should be noted that it was never a referendum to legalize gay marriage – merely between making the definition of marriage constitutional or not. After much debate, EKRE managed to get the referendum going on the legislative train, overcoming the coalition’s internal challenges – yet their brinkmanship did not go unnoticed. It is, therefore, unsurprising that immediately after the coalition with EKRE, the marriage referendum was scrapped from the agenda.

A series of scandals had rocked the Estonian government over the last two years. Urging all the homosexuals to flee to Sweden, mocking the Finnish PM for her ideology and background, questioning the credibility of Biden’s victory as well as the election results in Lithuania and Romania – these are just some examples of political faux pas abroad. Domestic scandals are equally numerous albeit less talked about in international media – obstructing debate in the parliament, ridiculing opposition politicians and the presidents, politicization of state institutions, shady dealings, and personal scandals leading to virtually all EKRE ministers being replaced in the two-year period. 

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The man who had stayed unreplaceable is Martin Helme, the articulate 44-year-old, now former finance minister. Together with his father, Mart Helme, they largely represent the party and the ideology. Martin is known for his brash statements but also for his influence behind the closed doors, which is why he was named the most influential Estonian in 2020 by the daily newspaper Eesti Päevaleht. The change of government shows that this title was perhaps overblown – Helme was more of an alliance of convenience, and as they became inconvenient, a new government was formed. The purported outsized impact the Helmes had on the political agenda certainly looked impressive, yet the actual policy achievements remain rather lacking.

The permanence of corruption

The urge to change the coalition partner does not mean that the stated reason, corruption in the party, was some clever diversion, merely that it was one of the reasons. While the primary opponent, the Reform Party, has also been implicated in illegal donations schemes before, the Centre Party is different because the corruption has often reached the top of the party leadership. When the long-standing party chairman Edgar Savisaar was arrested in 2015 on corruption charges, the new party leader Jüri Ratas took upon himself the challenge of making the party suitable for coalitions, which involved cleaning up the party’s tarnished image of corruptive practices.

The scandal involving financing the Porto Franco real estate development in Tallinn, in exchange for donations to the party for the upcoming municipal elections, shattered this illusion. Despite faring well in international corruption rankings, it has never really faded. In 2018, the Danske Bank Estonian branch was revealed to have laundered approximately $230 billion worth of suspicious transitions – yet even the investigation into it has become mired in accusations over his possible conflicts of interest

This once again proves an interesting phenomenon in the Estonian party corruption whereby the corruption stays just below the level of the party chairman and is instead handled by the party secretary, who stands ready to take the blame. This has made the end of this coalition bittersweet to many – happy to see the far-right EKRE out of the government, and sad that a serious corruption case is sacrificed for this strategic goal.

A divided society?

EKRE’s brief period in government has led to a growing feeling in society that it has become divided between conservatives and liberals. The rights of sexual minorities have been at the centre of this schism but also migrant workers from Ukraine, the continuing EU integration, etc. Although EKRE has brought these topics to the political discussion, it would not be fair to say that it is a new phenomenon. 

In fact, these sentiments can be traced all the way back to the 1990s and the initial impetus behind the Trans-Atlantic integration. While widespread support for the EU existed in the 1990s among all the politicians, it was not without its complications, specifically relating to the encroachments on the newly gained sovereignty. This is why the outright support towards the EU integration was only 42% on the eve of the referendum. Support for NATO was consistently higher, showing stronger support for a looser integration framework. 

Over the years, the economic benefits and free travel made the EU more palatable, and Estonia has risen to become one of the most EU-friendly nations in the Union. Yet the support tends to be more practical than value-driven – economic arguments dominate the EU discourse. As the debate veered more towards European values in the form of civil partnerships and the refugee management crises the following year, a wave of criticism followed. To many, the EU seems to be better than the alternative (that is, integration with Russia), yet it has to be similarly kept at bay to avoid compromising key issues related to national sovereignty. And that’s exactly what EKRE has been championing – restoring national control over the state, in the wider backdrop of fear that the nation is disappearing, or worse, being replaced.

EKRE, like all political parties, is a package deal and involves aspects that make it difficult to support even for those, who agree with their main points. Damaging strategic relations with the closest allies is a tough pill to swallow, leading opposition politicians and internet commentators alike to criticize EKRE for tarnishing Estonia’s international image and credibility. No political party will likely risk bringing them into a coalition government any time soon, yet EKRE will likely remain a popular force (in the lack of any other) due to the articulation of the alternative voice so often lost in the debate. 

Feature image: Changing the Letter, 1908, by Joseph Edward Southall / Birmingham Museums Trust 
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