Martin Helme: Rome is on fire and the emperors are fiddling

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EKRE leader Martin Helme. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The previous government's Minister of Finance and current Riigikogu second deputy chairman Martin Helme (EKRE - Helme is also party chair), says the new government hasn't been competent in limiting the coronavirus. It also makes him wonder that Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is using the same measures she criticized during the last government.

Martin Helme told ETV current affairs show "Esimene stuudio" that Kaja Kallas' Facebook post Tuesday which threatened the canceling of public summer events and shows demonstrates incompetence in handling the coronavirus crisis.

Helme told "Esimene stuudio" that he opposes government's attitude in not placing themselves in the same boat as the public, but instead threatening it.

Helme added that there is not much more that can be done in any case because most measures have been implemented. However, border controls should be stepped up so the populace wouldn't be able to travel abroad, to places where new aggressive variants derive, speed tests should be encouraged to identify the infected people in a group, and wider vaccination of the population should be organized, Helme said.

In addition, public transport between nations (e.g. the three Baltic States) should be cut down, and closing kindergartens totally should be considered.

"There are not many places where we could put society on ice," Helme added. "But tourism trips to Africa are still going on. This is not normal."

Helme said that worries over vaccinations rose at the end of summer.

Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik (Center), at the time social affairs minister but in the same role as regards the pandemic, had given the impression early on that everything was fine, Helme said.

Regarding criticism about the vaccination, Helme said that the government took an immediate position that it won't do anything unilaterally. In Helme's opinion, the state should have taken actions outside EU procurement agreement.

Helme said that the biggest problem with the current government is that they have inherited a mentality that there isn't a major problem, whereas now they are communicating that there is exactly that.

He also had criticism regarding experts.

"They have a lot of arguments, arguing these publicly, forcing the government to make certain decisions, going to the media without discussing a topic with the government etc," Helme said.

He also said that the government members' own messages via social media are controversial.

"Messages aren't agreed on, everyone has their own versions. But this what politicians do."

Speaking about the coronavirus deniers, anti-maskers and anti-vaccine activists, Helme admitted that he had already talked to one of his MPs, Kalle Grünthal, who recently refused to wear a mask (early on in the pandemic, Grünthal had tacked in the opposite direction to make a similar point, by donning a full NBC-type suit, visor and gloves for one public appearance - ed.). However, Helme says he thinks that there is no point in spending a lot of time on such people as his own MP, Grünthal.

"You won't get anywhere with those who don't believe in the virus and claim that the hospitals are empty," Helme said.

At the same time, Helme considered it dangerous if dissidents are not tolerated adequately.

"It is not a free society if you are told that you cannot express your skepticism," he said, following Saturday's widespread vehicle protest which reportedly brought traffic in several Estonian towns, including Tallinn, to a standstill.

Helme added that according to studies, not many people are against the restrictions as they are.

"70 percent of people support the current restrictions, while half think there should be more restrictions. We are not in danger of having a large bulk of people who refuse to acknowledge reality," Helme said.

He added that he also has some sympathy for the anti-restrictions people in Saturday's protest.

"They have understood that the coronavirus is an excuse to carry out many things in society. The heavy fist of state power is made even heavier in the guise of the coronavirus. The virus is a problem. But it must be understood that there are people who want to change the operation of society. Both these thingsare problems," Helme said.

Helme pledged that EKRE will not delay or debate the supplementary budget, currently at the parliament, because the party has understood that it is necessary and that a supplementary budget needs to be issued - just as the Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition had issued one this time last year. However, Helme said he was surprised that the Reform Party, in oppositiona year ago, gave the-then administration criticism for not keeping the budget in balance and taking out loans.

"Dear 'Reformers', Kaja Kallas and [finance minister] Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, where is your pearl of wisdom that the budget must be kept in balance and you can't loan any money, now?" he asked rhetorically. "Now, they are implementing exactly the same measures that we developed a year ago. We certainly support the implementation of this plan, but I do not understand the line."

Helme said that he feels sorry for Estonia as a whole because instead of controlling the COVID-19 situation, the government sits dealing with what he called peripheral issues, such as the hate speech bill.

"Rome is on fire and the emperors are playing violin somewhere on the roof. I am sorry for Estonia," Helme said.

At the same time, he did not criticize the principle of politicians communicating directly with their voters via Facebook (a medium he uses himself - ed.).

"Of course this is fine. I have a direct channel to the public; it doesn't come with the classic role of mediator, so no doubt it's frustrating for all the [mainstream news media] editors," he said.

At the same time, Helme stressed that communication should be professional.

In the case of this summer/fall's presidential elections, EKRE is ready to consider different options, Helme said, taking into account what is possible, what is not and what the party wants to achieve.

"However, we also have a plan for our party to nominate a candidate. I would see [former Riigikogu speaker] Henn Põlluaas in that position. I have also calculated a route Henn Põlluaas could take in becoming president," Helme added.

Estonian presidents are not directly elected by the people, a provision partly aimed at heading off overly populist candidates, when it was installed upon the restoration of indepenence.

Political parties nominate their own presidential candidates - sometimes more then one party picks the same individual - and a process of Riigikogu ballots ensues. If these prove inconclusive, the matter goes to the regional electoral colleges and, if a deadlock still remains, a Riigiikogu council of elders has the final casting ballot. This was the route Kersti Kaljulaid took to Kadriorg in 2016.

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Editor: Roberta Vaino, Andrew Whyte

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