Whether or not his party will win the upcoming Riigikogu elections is currently impossible to say, but in an interview with ERR's radio news programme Päevakaja, Prime Minister and Centre Party chairman Jüri Ratas found that his current government will be judged in the future by what they have accomplished today.
Everyday politics are a struggle, Mr Ratas said, noting that you have to take into account that there is no room for error, as opponents will always take advantage of them. Who counts as an opponent, though?
"I believe that all [parties] in the Riigikogu could actually be partners," he said. "Whether partners in the coalition or... The opposition can also be a partner in cooperation." He admitted that there are some lines that, once crossed, don't lend themselves to cooperation anymore, and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) has reached that problematic point. "But... if they are elected to the next Riigikogu — and based on the current ratings, they have a lot of support and they will be elected — and if they change their values, then I don't believe that anyone can tell a political party elected to the Riigikogu that we won't cooperate with you."
He added, however, that he could not currently imagine the Centre Party in a coalition government together with EKRE.
Nonetheless, Mr Ratas highlighted the broader benefits of the coalition government model employed in Estonia, noting that if you are in the opposition, all you can talk about is your own party programme, but if you are a member of a coalition, you have to take Estonian society more broadly into account. Regarding EKRE, he added that he was thoroughly convinced that many parties considered life in Estonia beyond who is capable of pushing their views more to the extreme.
Current government to be judged in the future
Noting that he believed that it is important for some degree of emotion to remain in politics, that politicians still remain human, Mr Ratas observed that he has grown more self-confident during his term as prime minister. "Estonia has held the presidency of the Council of the European Union — this has been a point where hopefully all of us can proudly say that our country is 100 years old," he highlighted, adding that it has been an honour to serve as head of government during this time in particular.
Regarding the past year, Mr Ratas found that it will be easier to look back in the future and judge how well 2018 has gone. Despite and even through a recent government crisis, he remained unshakable in his belief that the current government would hold and do its job through the end of the current term, citing the will of all of the players on his team.
"I can't deny heightened emotions, but in the end, what will be assessed are the significant reforms that our government has accomplished," said the prime minister. He cited the recently adopted 2019 state budget as a significant accomplishment, which was drawn up and passed despite the government crisis and the doubts that came with it regarding whether or not the coalition would survive it. Next year's state budget, which affects key issues such as healthcare, pension reform, defence reform, agricultural reform, progress on tax reform, reflects a number of issues that are important to the government, including societal unity, stability and generally staying on course.
Win needed to guarantee current direction
Despite this confidence in the current government, Mr Ratas admitted that he didn't know whether or not Centre would win the upcoming Riigikogu elections, which will be held on 3 March. A win is not set in stone, he said, citing November party ratings by Kantar-Emor putting support for the opposition Reform Party at four points above Centre's at 29%.
"I have told the party something very simple — if we want Estonian society to continue in the direction of cohesion and unity next year, if we want to decrease inequality, and for no one to be left behind or made to feel less valued, then there is only one means for this — and that is an election win," Mr Ratas said, adding that the key to this is to get out there, meet with people, listen to them, and share the party's views. The Centre Party, he noted, has put in a lot of effort in this regard, and will continue to do so in the two months to follow ahead of the elections.
How to calm down recent tensions and anger that have flared up in connection with the controversial UN Global Compact for Migration is a more complicated issue, however.
"Those who are in political positions have to understand that every sentence, even every word [they say] can cause a great deal of turbulence, but can also calm society down," Mr Ratas said, citing half-truths and fake news as factors that escalate turbulence and adding that no politician can allow for such things. "Their rating may go up next week, but by the end of the month it could mean a catastrophe. Politicians must retain a sense of responsibility three months ahead of the elections as well."
It was true, he admitted, that a better job could have been done explaining the migration compact, beginning with himself. Mr Ratas noted that both the proponents and opponents of the compact agree that Estonia is not interested in mass immigration, but the issue is that the two sides have different views regarding how this plays out. "The migration compact is needed to prevent illegal migration internationally," he added. "And so both groups' wishes are one and the same."
Just like everyone else
The people are the highest authority in the land, Mr Ratas said, and they are thus free to think whatever they want of him as prime minister.
"I have used the approach that regardless of whether one is in Kilingi-Nõmme, Kärdla, Narva, Tallinn or Põlva, you have to be prime minister to all Estonian residents," he said, adding that he did not consider himself Estonia's most influential person.
"Estonia's most influential person is actually the Estonian resident who puts their heart into their work as a teacher, police officer, journalist, fisherman or shopkeeper," he stressed. "Next to their positions, I don't consider myself a different kind of person in any way. Jüri Ratas is a simple, regular Estonian resident. That is what I base [my approach] on. Honestly."
All work is difficult, and one should put their heart and soul into their work. "But otherwise... I do the same things that I did two, five or ten years ago," he continued. "The chimney needs sweeping, the hedge needs clipping, the firewood needs splitting and stacking." His personal hopes for the new year were similarly humble, including that things go well for his loved ones and his family — including good grades and growth for his children.
For Estonia, Mr Ratas hoped that the country would see a bigger increase in population than last year. "Last year, Estonia's population increased by 3,498, and that is what I want — for our population to grow, for our birth rate to increase, for our sense of security to increase and inequality to decrease," he said. "Simple wishes."
Editor: Aili Vahtla