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Opinion: Will the current coalition talks reach their limit?

Toomas Sildam.
Toomas Sildam. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev

As we enter the third week of the coalition talks, ERR's senior political editor, Toomas Sildam, takes stock of what has transpired so far, whether and how the discussions have a time limit, and how potential cracks in the EKRE-KEI proposed coalition could show up right from the get-go.

Is it the case that the three parties holding the current coalition talks can get tangled up in disagreements to the extent that agreement between the Centre Party, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa will come to nothing, with one of the parties eventually standing up and saying ''that's it, we've reached the end of the line, and we're out''?

One acquaintance I was talking to, Toivo, from Kilingi-Nõmme, celebrating his 75th birthday, said that we might see the situation running on through to Jaanipäev, in midsummer, and then have further elections. Many happy returns, and here's to your health!

The three parties are trying to assess whether their potential partners' flexibility and willingness to compromise is sufficient to create a coalition which would have a conservative foundation.

Centre, EKRE and Isamaa still do indeed have much to congragluate themselves about. Centre, who won the ''silver medal'' in the parliamentary elections, may have been proud with their initial win over the Reform Party, following the election. However, the agreement with the two conservative parties – EKRE and Isamaa – still remains at the level of thoughts and desires.

Where's the money coming from?

The greater part of potential coalition agreement points have already been either discussed or, more accurately, touched upon. However, it is not clear to what extent the three parties' signature policies have been entered into any spreadsheet and where the money to implement these will come from. Moreover, this week bureaucrats from the finance ministry, viewed with some suspicion by some of the participants in the negotiations, will start to give their input to the parties.

Such debates I would like to hear. There are politicians who already know that the state budget has not been emptied, but simply misused. Thus Monika Helme, elected for EKRE, shared on her social media account concerning foreign assistance projects and their cost: ''Money is continuing to go to help the who world, but not for its own people? Come and make the right choices and bring it to that self-justifying army of officials, because it puts Estonia's sustainability in doubt''.

So whilst it is likely that the parties consulting in the Stenbock House will be able to agree on the allocation of money initially, there are still fundamental and, in many cases, world-view questions which remain unresolved.

For instance will the nascent coalition rescind the cohabitation laws? This was one of EKRE's coveted election promises. Most likely Jüri Ratas as prime minister would not make any promises that would consign him to the history books as a taker-away of rights. But what will happen should EKRE and Isamaa later make this an issue, something which Centre was against? Very interesting question...

Potential sticking points

Other gripping questions hinge on what will happen with the Rail Baltica high speed link, which EKRE has long questioned, or the status of the second pillar pension contributions, which Isamaa wants to make voluntary – a central plank of its election platform. Mr Ratas has been firm in his opposition to winding up Rail Baltica, and is hardly likely to back down.

Nevertheless, the public needs to be vigilant on the second pillar question, as the temptation might always be there to, for example, to halt the state pension contributions but then use the money to finance their new agreements.

Will EKRE get its justice reform demands met, with an elected judicial bench and time-limited terms? Doubtful. What about the presidential elections? EKRE wants direct elections, Isamaa is principally opposed to that, and Centre is hesitating. Nevertheless, since this would be a constitutional matter, the current potential coalition would not be likely to get the necessary majority at the Riigikogu to see this through.

Are there controversial issues there, then, which failure to reach an agreement on might force any of the three parties to stand up and say "that's it, we've reached the end of the line, we're out,"? Would a reshuffle of ministerial posts see EKRE, which has spooked the public so far, end up with the interior ministry?

First tests

It's possible to get an idea of how far the parties are open to compromise and flexibility. In any case, Tanel Kiik, one of the negotiators from the Centre Party, was right to say that no party would enter an agreement on terms unacceptable to party members and voters as a whole. There are tensions within the negotiating parties, in other words.

Jüri Ratas, at the head of the table in the discussions, has been tiresome, but purposeful. The parties are sitting together at the one table, they are talking. On some things the agree, they have been getting used to one another, and the feeling now seems to be that so much has been agreed that serious obstacles are not likely to be a hill to die on for the whole process. Mr Ratas knows how to keep the negotiations ticking over and keep people together.

But this can't run and run down to Jaanipäev, and there will be no extra-ordinary elections either. If the current triumvirate breaks down, Reform will make it into office. And we can only assume that either Centre, or Isamaa/SDE will be called for negotiations. Anyone left out will find themselves in opposition with EKRE. Which isn't an appealing situation.

This is before we get to any situation where President Kaljulaid proposes a formation of government to Reform, with Kaja Kallas as leader, as victors of the election. It is believed she would take that opportunity, which would give her 14 days to find a sufficient amount of allies, something she lacks at present, to get the necessary Riigikogu vote.

However, if EKRE-KEI became reality, its Riigikogu approval would be the very first test of its unity. It is likely that the XIV Riigikogu will convene of 4 April, where Jüri Ratas will formally resign the erstwhile government, President Kaljulaid will make a speech, and the chamber elects a chair and two vice-chairs. These are secret ballots, involving setting up voting booths on the second floor lobby at the Riigikogu.

Let's work on the assumption for now that the potential EKRE-KEI coalition nominates Henn Põlluaas (EKRE) as speaker, and the potential Reform/SDE opposition puts up a rival candidate. How then will Centre, and some Isamaa MPs too, vote? The answer would immediately reveal the strength and cohesion of the new union...

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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