Opinion: Estonia not about to join Poland, Hungary

Dario Cavegn, ERR News.
Dario Cavegn, ERR News. Source: ERR News

Don't cry, it's only politics: this week's bedlam surrounding the supposed right-wing takeover of Estonia is proving to be so much hot air. What is happening, contrary to the impression created by an army of social media armchair warriors, is nothing much more than run-of-the-mill post-election politics.

A coalition that includes the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) would be a terrible idea. That is what seems to be the consensus at the moment, and pretty much everywhere, right down to the three parties currently sounding each other out.

And it is. Right?

Centre neither first nor last party to consider working with EKRE

Just a quick reminder: in 2017, then-Reform Party chairman, Hanno Pevkur, didn't rule out the possibility of working with EKRE. When the campaign for the general election earlier this year was gaining momentum in the second half of 2018, another Reform heavyweight, Kristen Michal, had no issue making statements to the same effect.

In fact, before Kaja Kallas explicitly said that she wouldn't be part of a government that included EKRE, it was all but clear that Estonia's right-wing upstarts would be excluded from a government that involved Reform. And at the time she first said so, whether or not Reform's power brokers would back such a course was all but clear.

Yet here we are, in the middle of a bizarre mass dynamic of righteous indignation about the fact that the party of outgoing Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) is looking into the option of potentially signing a coalition agreement with EKRE and Isamaa.

Ignoring 20% of electorate not an option

The deluge of ill-informed and narcissistic moralism we witnessed earlier this week entirely screened out what seem to be a few inconvenient realities, the most apparent of which must surely be the fact that EKRE don't only represent a reprehensible moral stance, but also a fifth of Estonia's voters in the 3 March election.

So what is the message? That the country would be better off ignoring the democratic will of a fifth of its active electorate? That the political event of coalition talks needs to be put on par with the Nazis' rise to power?

The fact is we are a good long while away from a coalition agreement being signed. And President Kersti Kaljulaid isn't about to make Martin Helme Reichskanzler either.

If anything, the general noise-making and hysteria of armchair warriors this week is a testament to the same mix of narcissism, political ineptitude and lack of information that we are supposed to be so afraid of, as it has seen Trump elected, messed up Poland, Hungary and Italy and what have you. It is not productive, and only serves to ignore a complicated reality that apparently overexerts a large number of people from Kalamaja to Brussels' European Quarter.

Current events as ploy to improve parties' bargaining position

Apart from the fact that there are no heroes in this story, what happened following the election on 3 March can be summarised as follows:

The Reform Party won the election, but in the eyes of its most likely partner, the Centre Party, then demanded too high a price for a two-party coalition.

As the two main contenders for executive power, the two parties then turned away from each other to look into other options. Reform turned towards the Social Democratic Party (SDE) and Isamaa, while Centre went on to sound out EKRE and Isamaa.

And here is the next glaringly obvious thing. The Centre Party, despite a certain Soviet hangover that still sees some of its members and voters cling to rather conservative morals, politically is solidly left of the middle. Beyond pure power and technocratic considerations, working with EKRE and Isamaa would be near impossible, not even mentioning the fact that such a move would have the potential to rip the party to shreds, and undermine such a coalition's parliamentary majority from the start.

In short, a Centre-EKRE-Isamaa coalition is a terrible idea.

Centre Party playing high-stakes poker, appears to be winning

And this is where the mob of the conveniently indignant have it all wrong, namely where they think Mr Ratas is after nothing else but power. To say that he wants to stay in office at all cost is to demonstrate an outright spectacular level of political ignorance.

Mr Ratas is playing poker, and proving to be rather good at it.

What has happened this week will come as no great surprise to anyone who has paid attention to how the prime minister operates. Once in government, he included experts in his executive planning across policy areas to an extent none of his predecessors did. He has excelled at dealing with tensions within his own party. He has managed to keep two coalition partners in line who have made their hatred for each other perfectly clear.

In a nutshell, Mr Ratas is a capable politician, perhaps the most capable today's Estonia has got, and we have seen him in great form this week.

What we have seen is in fact a relatively simple political gamble: Reform, as some of its own members have repeatedly hinted, is desperate to get back into power. Even its founder, Siim Kallas, said in 2018 that the danger is real that another four years in opposition may tear up the party. Following the fall of its last prime minister, Taavi Rõivas, in 2016, Reform's performance in parliament was a disaster, with the party proving effectively unable to thwart the coalition's work.

Mr Ratas as well as his party are perfectly aware of Reform's situation and its current existential angst. The gamble, thus, was that Reform's attraction to executive power, combined with the public outcry at the prospect of seeing EKRE in government, would do its own to help Ms Kallas' party off its high horse.

Reform-Centre deal more likely now than immediately after election

The gamble paid off. That he has since allowed the Reform Party's leader, Kaja Kallas, to save face, namely by not trying to gain political capital out of Reform's back-pedalling on Wednesday, only speaks to his clout as a politician.

Reform are a party of pragmatic functionaries, administrators and power brokers. They are neither visionaries nor ideologues. Government is the be-all and end-all of this party, which makes it a viable coalition partner for just about anyone, including Centre.

Mr Ratas will know that should the Reform-Centre deal work out, and if the current post-election skirmish does not leave too many personal injuries, Estonia is set to see four good years, at least to the extent the government gets to have a say in the matter.

A Reform-Centre coalition with Prime Minister Kaja Kallas at the helm is the best possible outcome for this country at this moment in time. The Centre Party knows that as well as anyone.

Which brings us back to the armchair warriors. If anyone now complains that Estonia's reputation in the world has suffered, they will only have to look in the mirror. Estonia is not about to be taken over by Nazis, or turning into another Poland or Hungary. And if the issue that is EKRE is to be dealt with, this will necessarily mean having to face the problems that have the party such a broad following in the first place.

Which promises to be a complicated and painful process, and crying Nazi is obviously ever so much easier.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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