Analysis: Government crisis a result of Pro Patria campaign tactics

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Pro Patria's chairman, Helir-Valdor Seeder.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Pro Patria's chairman, Helir-Valdor Seeder. Source: Facebook

Pushing the government to the brink of collapse, Pro Patria is hoping to position itself more to the political right to regain votes it has lost to EKRE over the past few years. This not only puts Estonia's successful foreign policy of the last 25 years at risk, but will likely cost the country the non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for which it has been campaigning.

When the current coalition came into being two years ago, politicians in Estonia as well as the country's allies and fellow EU members all had one demand: they wanted certainty that a Centre Party-led government would not stray from Estonia's foreign and defence policy.

The reason for this almost hysteric insisting on a declaration of some kind was that the Centre Party still has an association agreement with United Russia, the party of Russian President Vladimir Putin — a document which, given the current lack of ideas for other campaign issues in the Reform Party, will no doubt become a broader issue again before the year is out.

The new coalition declared its conviction that Estonia's foreign and defence policy is based on broad consensus, and that there will be no change of direction.

The Social Democratic Party (SDE) has since adhered to it. So has the Centre Party. But the third coalition partner, Pro Patria, now seems to be quite happy to sacrifice it for the sake of a better chance to score a few mandates in next year's Riigikogu election.

Pro Patria provokes government crisis, Social Democrats take the bait

The current government crisis began the moment Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu (Pro Patria) blocked a decision on the UN Compact on Migration. This was followed by an emotional declaration by SDE chairman Jevgeni Ossinovski, that his party demands Reinsalu's resignation.

Both SDE and Pro Patria are junior partners in Prime Minister Jüri Ratas' government. Ratas and his Centre Party have had their difficulties keeping the government together on earlier occasions, but never before have things been this difficult.

Ratas could have had the coalition ministers vote on the UN Compact, a vote which Pro Patria would have lost — and following which it may well have left the government.

Pro Patria desperate to move to political right, regain votes lost to EKRE

Pro Patria has been under increasing pressure, its ratings continuously declining. Were the general election to take place tomorrow, the party couldn't be confident to make the 5% threshold. There is a good chance that come 3 March 2019, the party may lose its parliamentary mandates.

To keep this from happening, chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder and his inner circle seem to have decided that it is time to try and get some of the support back that they have lost to the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE). They seem to assume that a more radical right-wing stance, especially on the issue of migration, might get back some of those voters who have defected to EKRE.

But to keep up with EKRE, one has to be pretty radical. And that puts Pro Patria into a bind: as it is part of Prime Minister Jüri Ratas' coalition, it cannot lobby against government policy. And though it has repeatedly undermined its own government since it joined it in 2016, it thus far hasn't left.

Pro Patria hoping to gain conservative votes by moving closer to Hungary, Poland

Now, with the election drawing closer, priorities have changed, and Reinsalu and Seeder are increasing their efforts to position Pro Patria as an only slightly less radical alternative to EKRE.

Going against the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Estonia's consensus-based foreign policy of recent years, Seeder and Reinsalu want to associate Estonia more closely with Hungary, Poland and other countries that have taken a defiant stance on migration, and who are refusing to go along with international organisations and their approaches.

This isn't new. Pro Patria chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder has made it fairly obvious on earlier occasions what his party's actual opinion is, most clearly on 14 January this year, when the party released a statement declaring that its ministers are instructed to stand against whatever attempt by the EU to penalise Poland for its court reform, which effectively brought the country's supreme court under government control.

"Estonia certainly can't support taking away Poland's [EU] voting rights," Seeder wrote at the time. "We aren't experts to assess what the planned changes to Poland's court system really mean."

According to daily Eesti Päevaleht, who ran a summary of Pro Patria's steps in the now obvious direction on Thursday, Seeder was quick to soften the blow, but his party's actual stance in the issue had been made clear.

In October, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was in Tallinn to attend a football game between the two countries' teams. While Prime Minister Jüri Ratas kept his distance and pleasantries to the required minimum, Seeder showed no fear of contact, happily taking selfies and broadcasting them to his and the party's following on social media.

Undermining President Kersti Kaljulaid

This week's events are also undermining President Kersti Kaljulaid's efforts to lobby for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Should Estonia refuse to support the UN Compact on Migration, chances are that getting enough support in the UN General Assembly will be nearly impossible.

The president's schedule in recent months has given a lot of weight to the campaign. A team of government officials are working on it, and the spending on this representative foreign policy goal has already been substantial.

At the same time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Sven Mikser (SDE) has worked hard in the same direction as well. Should Pro Patria's harassment tactics succeed, this would be the end of that, and the non-permanent seat for 2020-2021 would likely go to Estonia's main competitor in Europe, Romania.

Merit of government deadlock questionable

Meanwhile, the deadlock in Ratas' government doesn't need to yield the kind result Seeder may be hoping for. The right and far-right end of Estonia's political spectrum are well served by EKRE, who by now have risen to the position of Estonia's third most popular party in the polls.

The 20-30% of the electorate that are likely to tend in this direction are currently courted by EKRE and Pro Patria, but also by the Free Party as well as Reform's considerable conservative wing.

Where Pro Patria used to have a reputation for new ideas, pushing for a slim and efficient state and reforms for the benefit of both simplicity and a liberal economy, this part of its appeal has long been taken over by the Reform Party as well, and the recent appearance of Estonia 200 as the newest centre-right political force will further increase the pressure.

This is not limited to voters alone. Some of Pro Patria's biggest names have left the party in recent years, among them one of Estonia's foremost foreign policy heavyweights as well as a former minister of defence and a former president of the Riigikogu.

With the party's bleeding moderates as well as radicals, it remains to be seen how much Pro Patria can gain from pushing its own government to the point of collapse, and from abandoning a foreign policy course that had recently been celebrated as one of the country's foremost political achievements since it regained its independence in 1991.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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