Tõnis Saarts: Kaja Kallas needs to get her 'backroom' working

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

While Kaja Kallas might be successful and prominent on the foreign policy arena, the prime minister is first and foremost expected to cope in domestic politics and keep the coalition government together, Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas needs to get her "backroom," made up of the chairmen of coalition partners, working in her second coalition if she wants to spare the latter in-house conflict that was rife in its predecessor. The Reform Party's coalition with the Center Party succumbed to this so-called backroom, where party leaders make the most strategic decisions and work out any conflicts, simply not working because [Center leader] Jüri Ratas at times refused to take part.

We will likely never know whether the reason was Kallas' scant diplomatic and cooperation skills or Ratas' bitterness and conscious choice to play the part of the in-house opposition. But the fact remains that the other participants made furious efforts to bring the two "tough nuts" together, while mistrust and umbrage finally grew to a point where it proved impossible to salvage the coalition.

The days of the previous government introduced a new phenomenon to Estonian politics: difficulties working together in the government significantly boosted the role of the Riigikogu and MPs.

I cannot recall a single government from the past few decades in which whips and other high-ranking MPs were constantly in the spotlight to explain the government's decisions and try to reconcile infighting. Traditionally, government decisions have been communicated and tensions smoothed by members of the cabinet or heads of parties. Ratas also contributed to the pendulum of power swinging back toward the parliament as speaker.

On the face of it, the Riigikogu becoming more influential under the first Kallas administration seems positive. There has been much ado about the parliament serving as a rubber stamp and lacking political agency in the past. Finally, we had a government that was forced to hand some of the power back to the parliament. On the other hand, the trend was indicative of the weakness of the government and the prime minister and a general inability to cooperate.

If Kallas wants her second administration to do better, to be more constructive and not mired in strife, she will need to make her "backroom" work this time. She cannot afford to concede another match to the Riigikogu.

Even though the word "backroom" has an unfortunate ring to it, it is inevitable for coalition governments to have informal arenas for resolving internal tension and making the most strategic policy choices.

In Estonia, that arena has been the Coalition Council that is usually made up of the leaders of the coalition partners, more influential ministers and Riigikogu whips. Should it prove impossible to resolve disputes in the council, party leaders would meet in private. A format that could be referred to as the "inner cabinet."

Therefore, talking about the "backroom," I am referring to the Coalition Council and the inner cabinet. It is important for heads of the ruling parties to regularly attend both, as opposed to popping by every now and again.

We do not know the plans of Helir-Valdor Seeder (who did not join the government as minister - ed.), whether he plans to blackmail the Reform Party with new demands leading up to elections to demonstrate that the government is run from Isamaa offices and not Stenbock House, or whether he will plot a more constructive and results-oriented course.

Regardless, the government's efficiency and inner climate will depend on whether Kaja Kallas will succeed in bringing party leaders together in a way to make the "backroom" work in the form of the Coalition Council and the inner cabinet or not.

The latter would see the center of power move back to the Riigikogu, or more specifically the offices of Isamaa MPs there, with Seeder playing the part of in-house opposition like Ratas before him, simply in a less theatric manner. At the same time, we should not leave out SDE whose interest is for the government to succeed and who are willing to contribute to facilitating good relations between partners.

While Kaja Kallas might be successful and prominent on the foreign policy arena, the prime minister is first and foremost expected to cope in domestic politics and keep the coalition government and different partners therein together. In other words, be a team player.

Should the PM fail to bring party leaders together and get her "backroom" up and running in two consecutive administrations, her party might consider whether she is a good fit for such high office.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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