Opposition leader, chairman of the Reform Party Kaja Kallas tested the waters for a new potential coalition during the summer. The results came back negative. However, she believes that presidential elections in 2021 could have an unpleasant surprise in store for the government.
What will the 2020/2021 political season be like for Estonia?
It will surely be tense. There are many battles ahead.
Could we expect fundamental change in terms of the makeup of the coalition?
We are working on it. It will depend on many small battles and whether we can win them.
How strong is Jüri Ratas' government as seen from the opposition?
Looking at previous governments – coalitions where personal relationships deteriorate and the partners throw witticisms at each other via the media usually do not last long.
However, while the current government engages in such verbal bouts quite often, their desire to stay in power is keeping them together and stronger than it has previous governments. Then again, the latter have had some principles.
Governments usually crumble from within. What kind of cracks if any can you see forming?
Let us look at individual topics and how agreements are made. If we read statements by Isamaa's Parempoolsed (Right-wingers) group, we cannot see how they could possibly agree to [the interior ministry's] amendments to the Aliens Act the government has now taken to the Riigikogu. Or the [marriage] referendum that is set to drive a wedge in society… These are topics on which the government is clearly split.
Father and son Helme (EKRE) compared Isamaa to a dead body on which attempts of resuscitation are wasted. Is that the case?
It is no secret that the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) wants to swallow and remove Isamaa's piece from the political board. Why the latter is allowing it is another question and one that should be put to [Isamaa chairman] Helir-Valdor Seeder.
That said… The current coalition is the only way for the Center Party to keep the keys to Stenbock House, for EKRE to be a member of the government at all and one of two ways for Isamaa to rule – in addition to a coalition with Reform and the Social Democratic Party (SDE). Does that make sense or is it an overly simplified train of thought?
It does, but only in terms of where political parties stand.
Looking at the big picture, can Isamaa achieve its goal of a universal Estonian-language education system in this government? They cannot. They could with us.
Should the Center Party be in favor of splitting society, not just as a proponent of a controversial referendum but also by creating a situation where some residents can vote while others cannot? Center has a lot of voters who can take part in local elections but cannot weigh in when it comes to referendums on other national issues. And who will their anger be directed at when they realize they will not be asked? The Center Party. It is not in their interests.
Has Reform reached a point where you no longer rule out anyone in terms of political cooperation?
Looking at how EKRE have conducted themselves in the government, I stick to what I've said in that ruling out cooperation with them was the right call.
And not just ruling it out but staying true to those words. Let us recall that Jüri Ratas ruled out working with EKRE on four separate occasions before Riigikogu elections, while the national conservatives were the first ones he called after elections…
Reform sticking to its words has been the right thing to do.
Our values do not match those of EKRE. They want to turn today's open Estonia into a closed off province – it is not something we can sign off on.
And yet, Reform and EKRE have enough seats to form a government between them.
Yes, we would have enough for a coalition and looking at the efforts of Center and Isamaa to whitewash EKRE, our voters might even start to consider it at one point. (Smiles)
Even though I cannot really imagine it as our values are too different.
Rumor has it you did not let the summer go to waste and instead tested the waters for an opportunity to overturn the government. What did you learn?
No coalition partner is happy in this government… Isamaa chair Helir-Valdor Seeder has a lot invested in this coalition and is not prepared to consider alternatives.
What about Jüri Ratas? Do you stay in touch, and how confident is he in the future of his government?
Looking at the recent Center Party congress and how it sang Ratas' praises, he definitely has a strong home base. And it seems to them that the path they chose was the correct one.
I don't know what he feels in his heart… He is troubled by these things deep down. But perhaps that's just wishful thinking on my part. (Smiles)
What does he tell you when you talk to him about it?
Our conversations are between the two of us.
What did Martin Helme tell you when you met to discuss a potential Reform-EKRE coalition?
A theoretical coalition with Martin?
We have discussed general matters but not a theoretical coalition.
What are the general topics between the heads of Reform and EKRE?
Everything that's on the table today. How to act in the coronavirus crisis. What to do about the state budget. Political choices we have to make this fall.
Did you find any common ground?
Definitely. We aim to come up with a more detailed plan of how Estonia could switch to universal Estonian education that will include specific dates and steps. It is something EKRE also prioritize. I believe that both EKRE and Isamaa will be behind it for it to finally get done.
Did Martin Helme promise you support from EKRE?
Well… Not in so many words. But he is in favor of the idea. We also did not have a bill ready at the time [of the meeting]. Now, we have something for them to support.
You will be placing the government over a barrel with your education reform plan.
We did not roll that barrel into the room. It is a problem that has been in need of a solution for quite some time.
President Kersti Kaljulaid referred to it as a single-language education system in her Riigikogu speech.
Do you believe that local government council elections in October 2021 will be accompanied by a referendum over whether the Constitution should include a definition of marriage [as being between a man and a woman]?
If just Isamaa's Parempoolsed act in accordance with what they've said and if Helir-Valdor Seeder really meant it when he said in summer that the main difference between EKRE and Isamaa is that the latter is a proponent of parliamentary democracy, while the former favors direct democracy, they will not have the 51 votes they need to hold a referendum.
(From the coalition agreement of the Center Party, EKRE and Isamaa: "We will be holding as a matter of other national issue a referendum on whether to complement the Constitution by including a definition of marriage as being a union between a man and a woman. We will be holding the vote on this national issue during the 2021 local government elections. If the people vote in favor of changes, we will pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman." – Ed.)
Center is also not over the moon when it comes to this idea?
Yes, but Center will do as they're told. And recalling how they sang their leader's praises at the party congress – I doubt there will be any dissenters.
Listening to you now, it seems you have made one important choice already.
Namely, that had you the opportunity to form a new government in the near future, it would include the Reform Party, Isamaa and SDE and not the Reform Party and Center Party.
It makes no sense for me to discuss dance partners with you in a situation where I don't even have a ticket to the disco. (Laughs)
And then we have presidential elections that will begin next August. How are we doing there?
As things stand, the coalition has started looking for a convenience president for themselves and not the president Estonia needs. They do not have enough votes to elect the president in the Riigikogu.
They have 56 instead of the 68 they would need.
… but they have not involved the opposition in this search, meaning that they are looking for a convenient option. We will surely be proposing our own candidate. We have not yet decided who that will be, while I'm not ruling out supporting the incumbent Kersti Kaljulaid as support for her is considerable in society.
(A Turu-uuringute AS poll from last fall found that 66 percent of people trusted completely or rather trusted the president, wile 22 percent rather did not. Kaljulaid was trusted by 75 percent of Estonians and 50 percent of people from other nationalities – Ed.)
President Kaljulaid's Riigikogu fall session speech from Monday also touched on local governments. Thinking of potential support for her in the Riigikogu and the Electoral College, would it be enough to secure her a second term?
Questions on President Kersti Kaljulaid's thoughts should be addressed to her. But I believe she has supporters among local government heads.
Would Reform be willing to support a coalition candidate to make sure the president is elected in the Riigikogu?
That all depends on who that candidate is.
Do you see any such candidate today?
I do not as long as they are looking for a candidate who would not be critical of the government and not keep as close an eye on their constitutional tasks.
I do not believe the president should be a good fit for the government. The president should represent Estonia, stand tall and ready to make unpopular decisions, act as a… buffer.
To which your opponents would say that we have the opposition's president in Kadriorg today.
Let me answer this way. If you honor the Constitution and refrain from doing unconstitutional things, there is no problem. In a situation where the president is observing the Constitution, the problem is that you lot rather are not.
Editor: Marcus Turovski