Estonia’s Brand-New Government Stands Out in Form, if Not Substance5 min read
The change of government in Estonia led to a sigh of relief even among those who do not particularly like either of the two ruling parties. Despite only being in office for slightly more than a month, the incoming Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has already brought changes that signal a new era in Estonian politics. Her political agenda will, nonetheless, have to wait for the pandemic to pass.
Estonia’s new government is certainly novel in many ways. For one, Estonia has never previously had a female prime minister. However, when Kaja Kallas (Reform Party) assumed office on 26 January, it obtained a global achievement – Estonia suddenly became the only country in the world to have both a female prime minister and president. However, the increased role of women in Estonian politics does not end there. In total, seven of the fifteen ministers of the new government are women. This stands in stark contrast to the past. The previous government led by the Centre Party started with just two female ministers, and the Centre Party’s first government had four female ministers – despite promising to increase the share of women in the country’s leadership. The government it replaced was the last government led by the Reform Party, which had just two female ministers. Taking the gender balance of the cabinet into consideration is thus clearly an issue of personal importance to Kaja Kallas, rather than a party preference.
Kallas also wanted another type of balance in the cabinet – a balance between experience and expertise. As she explained, roughly half of her chosen ministers were experienced politicians and the other half specialists in their field. The Centre Party followed a similar strategy in choosing their new ministers. However, this proclaimed split does not adequately explain the magnitude of the change. Only three ministers of the new cabinet have more than two years of previous ministerial experience. Considering that these are the two largest parties in Estonian politics, placing such faith in newcomers is remarkable. The reasons behind these choices are, however, quite different for the two parties.
For the Centre Party, the primary reason is the recent corruption scandals. When former prime minister, Jüri Ratas, dissolved the last coalition on 14 January, he did so by taking responsibility for the financing scandal that also involved the party’s general secretary. While Ratas claimed no knowledge of the corruption, it still made him temporarily unfit for office. Another political heavyweight of the Centre Party who also could not have become a minister is the former education minister Mailis Reps. Reps had to step down in November 2020 over allegations of the abuse of public office. The scandal did not go away, however, and on 9 February 2021, the state prosecution announced they would reclassify her misdemeanour proceedings as a criminal offence. As the two other top-ranking politicians are currently working in European Union institutions, their list of potential ministers suddenly became short. Such important cabinet positions as the interior and foreign minister were thus filled by politically unaffiliated experts.
Kallas did not have a problem with a lack of candidates for the ministerial positions. On the contrary, for a party that had recently celebrated being in government for sixteen consecutive years, the list of former ministers was long. Yet she chose only two with more than two years of ministerial experience, leaving out some of the party’s best-known names. If the decision to create a gender-balanced cabinet was uncontroversial, then leaving out veteran politicians prompted questions from the media. Some choices were explained through necessary political compromises, such as certain ministerial positions being unavailable and others unsuitable for veteran politicians. However, considering that some of the ministerial positions in question went to politically unaffiliated experts, it is also clear that Kallas was not pushing too hard to get those positions.
This lack of political heavyweights led the now-opposition politician Mart Helme to remark that the new coalition is “a government of pawns”. Mart Helme is one of the leading figures of the far-right Estonian National Conservative (EKRE) party that has repeatedly linked the Reform party to the supposed deep state. In his view, the real decision-makers will be in the political backrooms, while the ministers themselves are purely decorative. As Kaja Kallas herself is a political novice with no ministerial experience, it is likely that the ability to control the cabinet also played a role. Choosing established politicians with their own support bases could have presented challenges to her leadership. Another reason is that both parties have an image problem. While the Centre Party has a clear task in disassociating themselves from political corruption, the Reform Party has come to be associated with arrogance and political opportunism. That was, after all, the reason why the last government led by the Reform Party collapsed. Kallas probably understood that while many did not like EKRE, there was also not much enthusiasm for the old style of Reform leadership.
The substance of the new government is harder to pin down. Considering that they have only been in office for a little more than a month, that is hardly surprising. So far, the new foreign minister has proposed concluding the border treaty with Russia. The new coalition has also promised not to go forward with some key initiatives that EKRE was pursuing while in office. However, Kallas’s chances of implementing her agenda are limited – managing the pandemic takes precedence. On this front, the situation has become worse – Estonia has become among the worst-performing countries in the EU, only behind Czechia. It will become a litmus test for the new government, requiring strong leadership. The recently upgraded coronavirus restrictions will be unlikely to win the government any popularity in its first months.