Mid-way through a fairly turbulent week for domestic politics, leading politicians from the six parties represented at the Riigikogu took part in an episode of ETV's "Esimene stuudio," debating the ongoing filibuster in parliament, and wage rises for teachers.
Taking part in Wednesday evening's broadcast were: Erkki Keldo (Reform), Priit Lomp (SDE), Varro Vooglaid (EKRE), Helir-Valdor Seeder (Isamaa), Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200) and Jaak Aab (Center), while the presenters were Andres Kuusk and Liisu Lass.
Reform's Riigikogu chief whip Erkki Keldo said teachers' wages and those of emergency services personnel are vital issues; wage rises in these sectors were already addressed when forming up the current coalition back in April, he said, when the aim of raising teachers' wages to 120 percent of the nationwide average wage.
However, accomplishing this requires changes to the education system, he said.
"When we created this coalition, we talked with partners about the fact that it is not viable to simply [hike teachers' pay] via funding in today's situation; we have to [instead] examine the education field, and make the bold, necessary reforms," Keldo said.
Keldo pointed out half-empty school buildings he says dot the country, and noted that teachers in many locales do not have a sufficient workload, in his view.
Meanwhile Priit Lomp (SDE), said his party has stated from the outset that for them, raising teachers' wages, along with those of first responders and police personnel, is key; the party stood against freezing wages as a part of the state budget strategy during the autumn budget talks.
Lomp said: "The next year is set to be really difficult, but we have address this day due to a combination of multifarious crises. We have to fight the fight today, and I hope that the government will do everything possible to head off a [teachers'] strike."
A one-hour "warning strike" was held ahead of the school day last week, though in any case teacher wage discussions were put back to this week.
"We must do everything viable – to come to an agreement by 2025-2027 which should satisfy teachers, first responders and police officers alike," Lomp went on.
Varro Vooglaid (EKRE) said that "organizing the school network" is in fact shorthand for closing down rural schools, something his party opposes.
"Rural schools are a prerequisite for the preservation of rural life in Estonia," he said. "Do we want families with children to live in rural areas in Estonia, or don't we?". The funds are there, but it comes down to a question of priorities, he said.
The fate of one rural school in particular, the Metsküla school in Lääne County, has even had recent input from President Alar Karis.
The Minister of Education, Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200), was on hand also.
Kallas said serious discussions on where teachers' wage rises might derive from is still needed; teachers have been waiting for a permanent agreement for a long time, she said.
The topic has been on and off the agenda for years, Kallas added, and teachers have thus lost the confidence of the state, since every time a promised wage hike is due, it evaporates in the face of one crisis or another.
Teachers thus need certainty, to show them what steps are going to be taken in order to increase teacher pay over the next four years, Kallas said.
Lomp meanwhile said that the budget possibilities for the up-coming year are tight; discussions on teachers' salaries must focus on the four-year state budget strategy, and on establishing plan for the future.
Helir-Valdor Seeder (Isamaa) argued that deadlines for the state budget, currently at the Riigikogu, and amendments thereto, have passed, so any long-term solution needs more work and cannot be resolved quickly.
Erkki Keldo said that the funds needed can only emerge as a product of economic growth. He noted that a bill aimed at introducing renewable energy has been sitting in a log-jammed Riigikogu for a few weeks now, since empty amendments to that bill have been submitted. "Unfortunately, transferring money from one pocket to another doesn't make anyone richer in the long run," he said.
Opposition planning a vote of no confidence in the prime minister
This week, Isamaa started the process needed to hold a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform). Helir-Valdor Seeder said that there is no danger of the controversy over the prime minister's spouse's alleged business links to Russia, which first emerged in late August, getting to the end of its shelf life.
Many new details relating to the saga have come to light since then, he said, but since the prime minister has not taken on board responsibility for these, while the other two coalition parties have not raised the issue, the plan to censure Kallas has not expired, he said.
Kristina Kallas said she hoped that the government will be able to resolve the teachers' wages issue, and since it is seen as important to all three coalition partners, there is no point in voting in favor of a no confidence motion in the prime minister; with 60 seats at the 101-seat Riigikogu, the motion of no confidence would require some votes from coalition MPs to pass.
Jaak Aab (Center) said that in principle, the Center Party supports the motion of no confidence in Kaja Kallas. "The coming days will reveal what will happen with regard to the teachers' wage issue, and to several bills relating to the state budget and where there is no political solution. This deadlock and confusion is largely due to the fact that the government is not being well managed," he said.
No solution to filibuster
Seeder called the government's decisions bold, but stupid. "The context of no confidence is broader, extending to the whole quality of leadership, and not just giving an assessment either, but to get out of the current deadlock, also in parliament."
"The Estonian state has as of now been brought to a standstill. We are all too aware that Kaja Kallas is some sort of firebrand go-getter, who is speculating about NATO [secretary general post], European Commissioner, etc. We are all waiting for his departure. Before that, the confrontation between the coalition and the opposition will not be resolved," he said.
Priit Lomp said that the Reform Party enjoyed an exceptionally large mandate at the spring elections (with 37 seats – ed.), hence why the party will retain the prime minister's chair for the next three-and-a-half years, ie. to the next election, regardless of who is in charge.
Vooglaid said that if the vote of no confidence were to pass, or if Kaja Kallas resigned, this would not change much for EKRE.
Had resigned immediately the controversy broke in August, she would also have enjoyed a better chance at a shot at the NATO top job, he said.
"Actually, the problem is much wider than that – this is not about the personhood of Kaja Kallas, but about the fact that the current coalition pursues policies which are completely unacceptable," Vooglaid went on.
The current showdown at the Riigikogu prevents parties from reaching consensus, Jaak Aab said, and even the contents of bills are not getting discussed.
Kristina Kallas said that it is likely going to be difficult to get out of the current impasse, since EKRE does not recognize the spring election results in any case, and is hanging on for extraordinary elections.
"I hope that at some point the voter's patience will end on this point as well; the electorate will also give a signal that filibustering, which slows down the functioning of Estonian democracy, is simply not viable. But this is pretty much up to the voters to state, as things are at present," Kristina Kallas, no relation to the prime minister, said.
The next elections are to the European Parliament in June 2024, while Estonian citizens, albeit in fairly small numbers, are regularly polled on party support by the three main market research companies engaged in such work.
According to Varro Vooglaid, the primary reason for the ongoing filibuster his party is carrying out is that the coalition has taken the position from the outset that the legislature can be railroaded by the executive, while the opposition is not taken into account, even to the slightest extent.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Barbara Oja
Source: 'Esimene stuudio'