Opinion: In praise of love-less coalitions

The Reform/Isamaa/SDE coalition talks are now in their fourth week.
The Reform/Isamaa/SDE coalition talks are now in their fourth week. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Even journalists have been asking how and why parties who seemingly have no spirit of cooperation or mutual respect for one another, leave alone any love for one another, could come together for coalition talks, but this is to misunderstand the nature of Estonia's electoral cycle, laws, and party dynamics, writes ERR's head of news and sport Anvar Samost in a piece for regional daily Lääne Elu, against the backdrop of the Reform Party/Isamaa/Social Democrats ongoing negotiations.

The advantages of coalitions in general in Estonia are their taking into account a wider perspective than just that of one party, a perspective which can be blurred if a party becomes overly dominant, as has been the case with Reform in recent years or if a significant party is locked out over several (four-year) election cycles, as happened with the Center Party during the Savisaar era, Samost argues in the Lääne Elu article (link in Estonian), while parties in coalition with each other tend to keep an eye on each other's dealings, in so doing heading off the worst of potential cases of corruption.

The combination of the Constitution, electoral law, the Political Parties Act plus tendencies in Estonian society which derive from its history have tended to lead to a Riigikogu containing four to seven parties (currently five – ed.), and not only has no party ever netted enough seats to rule alone with a majority, but also this is a status quo likely to remain for the foreseeable future – while two minority governments have existed since the restoration of Estonian independence in 1991, these were truly the exception and reflected the peculiarities of the Riigikogu at the time.

For the same reasons, Samost adds, no administration has spanned the entire electoral cycle – in the current case the relative surge in popularity for Reform and Kaja Kallas in the wake of Russia's latest attack on Ukraine vis-a-vis a fall in support for Center led to the former ditching the latter, which in any case was more concerned with potential performance at next year's general election, demonstrating that coalitions in Estonia are based on pragmatism, but also a need for even the smallest parties to get at least some of their platform into an agreement – definitionally if they can't do this, they are surplus to requirements in any case.

This goes a long way to explaining why Reform, Isamaa and the Social Democrats (SDE) are in talks currently, even in spite of difficulties in particular with the Reform-Isamaa interface, Estonia's electoral laws and practices are tried and tested even as there are untested aspects of the 30-year-old constitution, such as holding extraordinary, off-schedule elections, while even forming a coalition at all in anticipation of electoral results rather than after the fact has not been done much before – ironically the time it did happen, in 1999, the three parties involved were the self-same three parties (SDE at that time were known as the moderates; Estonian: Mõõdukad) as involved in the current talks.

The full Lääne Elu piece (in Estonian) is here. Lääne Elu is an independent local newspaper primarily covering Haapsalu and Lääne County.

Reform, SDE and Isamaa started their negotiations on June 13, 10 days after the dismissal of the seven Center Party ministers from office. The process has been interrupted by the midsummer's break and by the need for Reform's leader and prime minister, Kaja Kallas, to attend EU and NATO summits in Brussels and in Madrid, but it is now entering its fourth week and has now seen the head of state, President Alar Karis, call for progress and clarity on more than one occasion.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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