Remaining impartial as Riigikogu speaker while still being Center Party leader was an achievable goal, new speaker and former prime minister Jüri Ratas (Center) says. At the same time, parliament's voice must be amplified in combating the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
Talking to ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK), Ratas said that it would be feasible for him to work across all five parties represented at the Riigikogu, while still Center leader.
"Certainly your work must be cross-party, a mediator," Ratas told AK.
"There is no way you can support your 'home' party any more than you can the coalition [as opposed to opposition]; you have to take both into account," he went on, noting he worked for nine years as Riigikogu speaker (2007 to 2016 – ed.).
Prior to that, Ratas had been Mayor of Tallinn (2005-2007), a post which he took up at the age of 27.
Ratas: Pandemic makes need for cooperation between Toompea and Stenbock House more pressing
Center and Reform are in office together, while the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) are in opposition.
Hanno Pevkur (Reform) and Martin Helme (EKRE – also the party's leader) are the deputy speakers following Thursday's ballot.
According to the recent Speaker of the Riigikogu, it is possible to combine the new office and the work of the party chairman. Ratas noted that he also has nine years of work experience as the Deputy Speaker of the Riigikogu.
Appearing on ETV politics discussion show "Esimene stuudio" later on on Thursday, Ratas said that the pandemic heightened the reason for smooth cooperation, not only within parliament but also between it and the government.
Calling the current figures – which see Estonia in first place worldwide in its 14-day rate per 100,000 inhabitants - "Frightening", Ratas said that the faster exiting restrictions while providing state support, the better.
Ratas: I take speaker role seriously
In this strategy: "We are talking about extending the compensation for sick days (where sick pay kicks in from day two, and is on the state from day six – ed.), which has been going on for four months, from the present to the end of the year, and … to provide various institutions a more active opportunity to act, for example, during a pandemic," Ratas said, in other words boosting state agency powers, likely including those of the police.
Ratas refused to be drawn on whether he would be a presidential candidate in the August-September election rounds, telling AK that the party would pick its candidate in May, and adding that he takes the post of Riigikogu speaker – properly called President of the Riigikogu, seriously. This post is seen by many as second in importance only to the role of head of state, since it controls all the in and out of parliamentary businesses.
An illustration of that is that a bill permitting children to obtain psychiatric help without parental consent passed almost the minute Ratas' predecessor, Henn Põlluaas (EKRE), stepped down at the end of his term on Wednesday, after the bill had been held up for over a year.
He has in the past expressed a desire for the president to be picked early on at the Riigikogu rather than protracted rounds at the regional electoral college and then the Riigikogu's council of elders – the route Kersti Kaljulaid took to the post in 2016. The latter is eligible for a second, five-year term.
Ratas also told AK he took political responsibility in the corruption case which engulfed his party in January, by resigning as premier.
Jüri Ratas: 'Jüri Ratas took responsibility in Porto Franco case, despite not being suspect'
Referring to himself in the third person, which seems to have become somewhat of a Ratas trope in recent weeks, he said: "Although Jüri Ratas was not a suspect there, it is true that the party's secretary general and the party itself were declared suspects."
"Mikhail Korb has resigned as the party's secretary general. Today's election (of Riigikogu speaker and deputies – ed.) demonstrated how Jüri Ratas manages things in a balanced way. I think that in my work I have shown this at the Riigikogu for nine years as the deputy speaker, and also for the last four years as the head of the government," he went on.
Ratas became prime minister in November 2016 after a vote of no-confidence in Taavi Rõivas (Reform) saw the latter and his party switched out in favor of Ratas and Center, joining SDE and Isamaa in coalition.
Ratas fought a general election in his own right in March 2019 and, despite his party winning fewer seats than Kaja Kallas' Reform Party, entered in negotiations with EKRE and Isamaa, ascending to office the following month.
The corruption case centered on the Porto Franco real estate development in central Tallinn, with allegations of bribery and influence peddling in granting permissions and a state loan sucked in finance ministry adviser Kersti Kracht, businessman and major Center donor Hillar Teder (these two were imprisoned for over a month, and have now been released) and two other unnamed individuals, as well as Korb and the Center Party.
Once the Internal Security Services (ISS) investigation and naming of the above as suspects was made public, on January 12, it was only a matter of time before Ratas stepped down, which he did in the small hours of January 13.
Supports Kaja Kallas in supplementary budget rationale
Ratas told "Esimene stuudio" that opposition criticism of a lack of transparency in the supplementary budget which passed at the Riigikogu this week is not wholly without merit.
"I agree that the Estonian state budget has become much more difficult to read from year to year. it is a constructive direction and it must be done," he said.
The €641-million supplementary budget, the second of its kind since the pandemic began, has been issued in response to the coronavirus crisis and the current, major wave of cases. The regular state budget usually passes at the end of the year ahead of the year to follow.
Ratas said that nonetheless, the supplementary budget as it stands is sound, with plenty of support to the health-care and education sectors, as well as the cultural field, which is getting €40 million, adding he supported Kaja Kallas on the matter.
The rest of the Esimene stuudio interview dealt with the vaccination of MPs – thirty of whom took their first AstraZeneca doses on Thursday – which will take time but is necessary in ensuring the country's leaders can work unhindered, once priority, front-line health-care workers had been taken care of.
Evidence of the success of the latter policy could be seen from the fact that nursing home outbreaks, which had been rife before the vaccines started arriving at Christmas time, were now under control, with care home residents no longer being hospitalized due to the virus.
Editor: Andrew Whyte