Analysis: Center's biggest compromise sticking with the current coalition

Jüri Ratas and [education minister] Mailis Reps en route to meet the press pack on Thursday.
Jüri Ratas and [education minister] Mailis Reps en route to meet the press pack on Thursday. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Center Party and Isamaa leadership declined to start potential coalition talks with the opposition Reform Party, and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) did not want to end up in opposition, as a result of this week's political crisis, writes senior ERR political journalist Toomas Sildam.

To draw the crisis to a conclusion, the coalition party leaders issued a joint statement on Thursday in which they announced their common duty to respect all living in Estonia. However, one big difference between this controversy and previous episodes, is that no apologies were made, though the major compromise was Center continuing with the current lineup, Sildam continues in an editorial which follows.

"I would say the most difficult political path for me has been the current crisis," Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) said a couple of days ago. 

That crisis began a week ago after interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE) gave an interview to the Russian-language portal at German international public broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) in which he said that gay people in Estonia might be better off relocating to Sweden, where the environment might be more amenable to them, adding that he tended to look at gay people in a hostile manner. 

The ensuing outcry saw condemnation from leading Center Party figures, which finance minister Martin Helme (EKRE) responded to by saying the real question was whether his party could trust the prime minister. 

And with that the coalition crisis had reached its peak. 

Conciliatary meetings followed, with the initial of these finding a high pitched-tone with mutual condemnations taking place and on other matters: Why was EKRE the last to get to know knew information about the MS Estonia ferry shipwreck, after Center and the third coalition partner, Isamaa? Why did Isamaa leave EKRE in peace while the latter were attacking Center?

Soon the proposed marriage referendum became focus of the disputes, however. The holding of a referendum (most likely worded as a yes-no question on whether marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman – ed.) had been agreed in the coalition pact signed in April 2019, and to take place no later than October 17 2021.

Social affairs minister and representative of Center's more liberal wing Tanel Kiik said that holding a referendum in the current social climate would "to be putting it mildly" be an irresponsible thing to do. 

Isamaa's "right wingers" (in Estonian "parempoolsed", and, perhaps counter-intuitively, representing a segment of that party wishing to distance itself from EKRE rhetoric – ed.) felt the same way. 

"In this type of environment, this type of [referendum] debate cannot take place with the current makeup of the Riigikogu," they said. 

However, EKRE has not backed down on the referendum and Center, together with Isamaa, have stepped back in the face of their coalition partner's resolve. 

Ultimately, EKRE also took somewhat of a quarter-step back in that it did not want to put too many cards on the table and end up in opposition. 

Thus, the referendum will take place next spring – in April or May but not to coincide with local elections day, which would have had the effect of hijacking the elections as a single-issue, to the detriment of real local issues. 

EKRE also conceded a little bit of ground with Martin Helme's statement on Monday that: "It will never be the case that liberals can dictate to EKRE about what, how and to whom EKRE speaks" (i.e. they acknowledged the pushback without issuing an apology – ed.). 

In other words Mart Helme's DW interview comes under the freedom of speech bracket. 

Now a joint statement ending the current coalition crisis between Center, EKRE and Isamaa, in which they give a little to each other, concedes that freedom of speech is a right for all, but the in addition qualified by the statement: "This right ends at the point where the rights and freedoms of other people, their healthy, honor and good name begin." 

This statement is followed by a pledge from Jüri Ratas, Martin Helme and Helir-Valdor Seeder that: "Our state is based on fundamental values that search for unity, human dignity and personal freedome and our duty is to communicate with respect with all Estonian residents." 

Opposition Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas has been critical of this conclusion. 

"The referendum on the rights of minorities and the government's declaration of protection against discrimination and the defense of human dignity do not tally," she said. 

At the same time, [opposition party] Social Democratic leader Indrek Saar says that Ratas subsequent concession to the Helmes is a big disappointment. On Tuesday the prime minister met with the Social Democrats who gave the promise that if the coalition did not scrap the referendum and produce a Riigikogu bill responsible for the same, the social democrats would initiate a no-confidence motion in the government. 

Jüri Ratas had said this week that if a solution were to be found, everyone would have to make a compromise. At the same time, he did not himself outline what compromise Center had made, but this is rather clear: Their biggest compromise was to continue with this coalition. 

The coalition crisis gave some short-term hope to Reform, who for sure won last spring's general election, but nonetheless remained in opposition (Reform won the largest number of seats in the Riigikogu at 34, but found themselves locked out of coalition negotiations, except with the Social Democrats who, with 10 seats, together could not make up a majority at the 101-seat Riigikogu – ed.). 

According to sources among Center and Isamaa MPs, representatives of Reform had invited then – Center and Isamaa – to negotiations this week on the topic of a potential new coalition, but found themselves going away empty-handed. 

However, by that time the soil for any possible coup was less fertile than before, because at least at the beginning of the week, desire for ending the current coalition could be heard from several Center Party offices. 

Ratas' wish to hold the current lineup together remained, however. 

Center Party MEP Yana Toom says that Reform's mistake was not to be clear about with whom it wanted to form a new coalition if the possibility arose – be it Center or Isamaa or the Social Democratic Party, and not fish for two different opportunities at the same time.

Toom herself, incidentally, has made no secret of the fact that she considers a Center coalition with Reform to be the better option. 

There is ultimately one major difference between this crisis and those which have gone previously (such as the late 2019 controversy over Mart Helme's remarks regarding NATO – ed.): Noone is apologizing – neither on others behalf or for themselves. 


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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