Is this just democracy? Yes, say Conservative People's Party (EKRE) politicians who participated in taking away the government's right to control Health Board decisions in terms of restrictions to be maintained or laid down. With support from EKRE, Reform succeeded in securing the board's independent capacity for decisions.
The unexpected turn took place in the Riigikogu on Monday during deliberations over amendments to the Emergency Act. The government wants to end the coronavirus emergency situation at midnight on May 17 and needs a lever for decisions concerning restrictions in what will be an emergency – no longer nor yet an emergency situation – starting from May 18.
"In an emergency with a considerable social or economic effect or the effects of which go beyond the territory of a single local government unit, the Government of the Republic can issue orders to the agency in charge of relevant measures for the purpose of quickly solving the emergency," the government bill reads.
This would have left the government with a chain of command for organizing emergency operations and exiting emergencies, while the main burden for laying down restrictions and their alleviation would fall on the board.
This sparked the ire of EKRE and Isamaa politicians who have sharply criticized the board in recent months.
"Can you imagine the current board of the Health Board given the right to ban services, gatherings; order establishments, cities and entire counties closed; ban public meetings etc. without a transparent political debate or decisions on the government level preceding it?" Aivar Kokk (Isamaa) asked his fellow MPs on Monday.
Or Tarmo Kruusimäe, also from Isamaa: "Three-quarters of my voters do not support delegating these tasks to the Health Board, while one-fourth does. I suppose I will proceed based on who elected me – the board or my constituents."
Peeter Ernits (EKRE) said the emergency situation cannot be ended nor anyone quarantined or their activities restricted from Monday without passing the Emergency Act.
Ernits proceeded with all the subtlety of a heavy machine gun: "That said, it is incredibly absurd to give a board we do not trust more powers. A board run by yet another bureaucrat with no knowledge of the field… /…/ …it is also quite clear that if we are to give this Moloch even more power, we will have to replace its leaders first. I believe that is what will happen. And once we have properly cleansed those ranks and found capable executives, the agency can be empowered."
Such a passionate statement begs the question whether the coalition has the votes required to pass the government's amendment and boost the board's independent decision-making capacity. Jürgen Ligi (Reform Party) also couldn't understand "how the government arrived at giving the board new powers instead of exercising them itself."
Ligi's question comes off peculiar in turn as it was the Reform Party that first proposed lifting the board above the government in terms of solving emergency. The opposition leader did not regard it proper to give the government the collegial right to meddle in the activities of the agency in charge of the emergency and issue orders.
"It could leave management unclear and the agency in charge of solving the emergency afraid to take independent action, as well as its responsibility dissolving. Solving an emergency requires a single leader and responsible body. Additionally, a clear and unambiguous chain of command is needed," the Reform Party group said.
Their amendment proposal reads: "The agency in charge of solving the emergency can, for the purpose of solving the emergency, issue orders to executive institutions, local government units or other public authorities, considering the capacity and powers of these agencies and persons…"
"In other words, when the emergency situation ends while there is still an emergency, the Health Board will retain its current right to issue orders to government or local government agencies, which the government cannot affect," Reform MP Signe Riisalo explained.
To put it even more simply – the government cannot take over management of the Health Board in an emergency. This would be unusual in Estonia's administrative arrangement.
The coalition does not usually support the opposition's proposals, meaning that Reform's proposal should have gone out the window. Instead, it was passed with votes coming together 44:38.
What happened? Eight EKRE MPs – Riho Breivel, Peeter Ernits, Urmas Espenberg, Ruuben Kaalep, Uno Kaskpeit, Leo Kunnas, Anti Poolamets and Henn Põlluaas – and three Centrists – Kaido Höövelson, Jaanus Karilaid and Andrei Korobeinik – threw their weight in with the Reform Party.
Ruuben Kaalep described it as democracy in action – coalition MPs approving a sensible proposal from the opposition.
It remains to be seen whether the coalition supporting sensible initiatives wherever they come from is something EKRE and the rest of the government will continue to do in the future.
Some coalition MPs said that EKRE does not like its partners Center Party and Isamaa's wish to end the emergency situation and alleviate restrictions.
"What if EKRE decided to support Reform's proposal to remove the government from solving the emergency and give Health Board all of the power to create a situation where we can no longer afford to support our own bill?" a coalition politician asked.
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas is in a hurry. The Riigikogu should pass the bill on Wednesday. Should it, the government hopes President Kersti Kaljulaid will not take two weeks to proclaim the law. Only then will we be able to wake up outside an emergency situation on May 18 and instead find ourselves in an emergency run by the same Health Board several politicians have railed against only to give it additional powers now.
Should that happen, and if this was indeed a ploy by coalition members to pull one over on their colleagues, the coalition will surely have played itself.
Editor: Marcus Turovski