According to news portal Delfi.ee, the Center Party and the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) had a deal that included Center allocating €100,000 in state subsidies for the benefit of much smaller EKRE. What exactly EKRE would have received the money for isn’t clear.
On Nov. 30 last year, chairman of EKRE’s parliamentary group, Martin Helme, sent a letter to some of the leading party members concerning the distribution of money out of the state budget’s allocation for the political parties and their projects.
In his letter, Helme wrote: “As for the subsidies, this year we are getting more than last year, but we only learned about the exact number yesterday and today was already the deadline to submit proposals. Altogether we are getting 300 thousand plus another 100 that don’t go under the name of the parliamentary group, but are being hidden.”
Center Party: Such a deal never existed
Minister of Rural Affairs Tarmo Tamm was the chairman of Center’s parliamentary group at the time. Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab was the party’s secretary general. Both deny any knowledge of such a deal.
Helme stressed the need to obfuscate the scheme. “I’ll send out two documents about the distribution of our money this year. One is the parliamentary group’s proposals, the other document with the title ‘Martin’s proposals’ is about the redemption of promises at the time of the presidential election, and that one isn’t going under our name, but will be hidden in the budget somehow so that nobody knows that we’re getting 100 more,” Helme wrote, adding that party members shouldn’t pass around information about this scheme: “Otherwise there will be trouble, and we’ll end up not getting anything at all.”
Claim: Center Party bought electoral college votes for Mailis Reps
A claim made in the Delfi.ee article was that the promise aimed at getting the Center Party's candidate, Mailis Reps, into the second round of the presidential election in the electoral college last November.
The article pointed to the fact that EKRE's candidate in the same voting round, party chairman Mart Helme, was seemingly abandoned by the representatives of his own party, while Reps received a boost and almost made it into the second round.
Helme: No connection with presidential elections
Martin Helme told ERR that the distribution of regional subsidies coincided with the government change. He explained that the Center Party promised EKRE and the Free Party that they would each receive €500,000 to e.g. invest in the renovation of schools, to improve community life, help local congregations, and so on.
But the Center Party hadn’t been able to deliver, as it couldn’t see its plans through against opposition from the Social Democrats and the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) in the coalition, Helme said.
“There is no connection whatsoever between the allocation of the subsidies and the presidential elections,” Helme said, adding that at the time the Center Party had not been in the government and couldn’t have made any promises.
“When the Center Party made it into government last year they promised the opposition money to support different regional projects, as the Reform Party government had done it before,” Helme added.
They had agreed with the Center Party that they would add projects important to EKRE to their list of things they were going to support. “This was a good solution. As an opposition party, this kind of deal is the only possibility we have to participate in the distribution of state budget funds,” Helme added.
A pot for the parties' interest groups
Referred to as katuseraha, "roof money" or "deck money" in Estonian, there is an amount of typically around €6 million in the state budget the allocations of which are decided between the annual budget bill's second and third reading in the Riigikogu.
There are no specific action plans or purposes listed beforehand for which this money would then have to be allocated. Criticized by different NGOs like Transparency International and the Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organizations, these €6 million are distributed according to input from the governing parties.
This is the opportunity Helme mentioned for opposition parties to participate in the distribution of budget funds. Here, deals can be made, e.g. in the form of promises in return for financial support of interest groups a particular party is close to. The prodecure on the way to the eventual allocations is not transparent.
What is necessary though is a parliamentary majority to see the budget bill through, which again makes the theory unlikely that the Center Party was trying to buy EKRE's votes in the electoral college, as they weren't in the government at the time and couldn't have pushed through a budget of their own making.
All parties in the Riigikogu receive substantial subsidies
Estonia’s parties are by law entitled to state subsidies. Originally the according law provided funding out of the state budget proportional to a party’s number of Riigikogu mandates. Parties that did not exceed the 5-percent threshold in national elections were not eligible.
Since 2014, parties with less than 5 percent of voters’ support in national elections also receive subsidies, albeit much smaller amounts.
The Center Party, with its currently 27 mandates in the Riigikogu receives about €120,000 per month out of the state budget. In contrast, EKRE, at seven mandates, receives some €31,000 per month. The average contribution to parties per Riigikogu mandate per month is €4,466. All parties in parliament are paid the monthly subsidy on the 5th of each month.
Editor: Dario Cavegn