Mailis Reps (Center) has resigned as education minister following mounting pressure over her use of a ministerial car for non-official work, primarily transporting her children to and from kindergarten. Reps' resignation is the third by a government minister in the month of November.
Reps wrote on her social media account that she takes political responsibility over mistakes in balancing work and family life, and that had prompted her resignation.
"The last week has been the most difficult period of my political career," Reps wrote.
"I have come under strong pressure to balance the roles of minister and mother. I admit that I have made mistakes and I apologize for that," she added.
Reps is the mother of six children.
"I want to provide my smaller children with a safe and harmonious environment in which to flourish. This is why I opted today to resign as Minister of Education and Research and also take political responsibility for mistakes in reconciling work and family life," she went on.
Õhtuleht article sparked the furor
The story first broke on the website of evening paper Õhtuleht on Tuesday. A reporter from the paper had tracked Reps' ministry car and photographed her children being taken or dropped off from school, without the minister present.
Sources told the paper that this had been standard practice for some time.
Reps' initial reaction was to hit out at her children being drawn into controversy and photographed, albeit with their faces blurred out, an action which Õhtuleht has faced no shortage of criticism for.
Reps: I got work-life balance wrong, work has been busy lately
Reps also said that there had been an uptick in use of the car for the purpose due to busy periods in connection with the ongoing state budget debate process, a recent coalition crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, and that this had also been the case at earlier times, such as when Estonia held the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in late 2017.
She also added that the car had been taxed specially for that purpose, though business daily Äripäev later reported (link in Estonian) that this money ultimately came from the taxpayer in any case.
The original Õhtuleht piece also claimed that Reps had taken the car as far as Croatia, on a holiday.
While she denied wrong-doing, Reps had pledged to try to get the work-life balance nailed down better. She also denied that ministry staff had been pressured to work in a child-minding capacity.
Ratas: A major loss to both government and education
While Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) stood by Reps, she handed in her notice Friday evening.
Ratas noted on his own social media account his sorrow about having to accept Reps' resignation.
Ratas wrote: "Today has been a hard day. We decided on several [new] restrictions to halt the spread of COVID-19 (a requirement to wear masks in theaters and cinemas and also to reinstate a 50 percent capacity limit in such places – ed.) then the evening brought another tough piece of news."
Ratas noted that he had just met with Reps, who had handed in her resignation.
"Mailis is beyond dispute a strong minister, a long-term party ally and a good friend. This is without a doubt a major loss to both the educational field and the government," the prime minister went on, noting that Reps has had four stints as education minister and has been in Center Party leadership roles for 17 years.
Reps will now be returning to the Riigikogu.
"Mailis, I sincerely thank you for your massive contribution. I wish you the best of luck and strength at the Riigikogu, but especially in caring for and loving your family. I know that our great and reliable cooperation continues, and you still have a lot to offer to the Estonian nation," he went on.
Third ministerial resignation in November
Reps' resignation is no less than the third from a government minister this month. Rene Kokk (EKRE) stepped down as environment minister on November 4, citing health issues. A few days later, it was the turn of former interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE), in the wake of a backlash, including from the prime minister, over remarks he made about the recent U.S. elections and president-elect Joe Biden on a radio show, the day after Biden was confirmed as the election victor.
While Kokk and Helme have both been replaced, by Rain Epler and EKRE MP Alar Laneman respectively, no replacement has yet been named for Reps, since the news just broke.
As per standard practice, Reps will be returning to the Riigikogu – she won a seat at the 2019 general election but government ministers do not sit in the chamber – joining Helme and Kokk.
The "benchwarmer" MP who took Reps seat when she was appointed minister in late April 2019 will have to make way for her.
Reps has been appointed minister of education four times, 2002-2003, 2005-2007, 2016-2019 (when the first administration of Jüri Ratas was dissolved following the March 2019 general election) and since late April 2019, when she was reappointed to the post in the Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition. Her tenure has included Estonia's coming first in the international PISA education rankings, which was announced late last year.
She divorced from the father of her children, a Latvian lawyer, in early 2019.
Editor: Andrew Whyte