Opinion: Ratas-led talks could see him return as premier even without EKRE

Jüri Ratas (Centre and centre) has led the coalition talks confidently. Even if it doesn't come to fruition, his stock is high.
Jüri Ratas (Centre and centre) has led the coalition talks confidently. Even if it doesn't come to fruition, his stock is high. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

As of Thursday, 4 April, coalition discussions between the Centre Party, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa have gone all the way to the Riigikogu, as, for many people, disbelief transformed into bemused resignation. Is this lineup, then, going to find itself in the Stenbock House, the seat of the government, or is it all part of a strategy on the part of the two biggest parties, Reform and Centre? Whatever the outcome, it's looking like the political coming of age of Jüri Ratas, who has staked his reputation on the talks and seems to be winning.

While the Reform Party came away from the 3 March general election with the largest share of seats at 34, eight ahead of Centre and nearly double the amount EKRE, it has been shut out of coalition talks ever since. Centre rebuffed it a few days after the result and set up shop with EKRE and Isamaa, leaving Reform to lick its wounds. The consolation prize of the only other party to come away with seats, the Social Democratic Party (SDE) — not a group which Reform has much in common with — was so unappealing on 10 seats that in fact SDE found itself out in the cold too.

There are five parties in the Riigikogu, where once there were six (and about half a dozen so-called indepenent MPs), so the March elections were something of a rationalisation process which slightly reduced possible coalition lineups, and the potential strength of any ensuing government a marked improvement on the Centre-SDE-Isamaa partnership, practically on life support from the latter half of 2018.

This gives us the key to what happened. Many people have said that Reform screwed up, that it got greedy in its post-election demands. In fact, it did not. Few people were in the mood for a dance; this was time for sitting, taciturn at the bar, poker faced, until closing time. Old scores related to the way in which Centre came into office in November 2016 (when the two coalition junior partners stabbed Reform in the back and brought in Centre) still needed settling, and Centre realised it needed to get its retaliation in first, stabbing Reform in the front this time instead. If anyone has acted irrationally, it is Centre. Reform's Kaja Kallas has been gracious in offering an olive branch to Centre more than once, without complaining.

Kingmakers become 'king-made'

No doubt she gets good advice, but the party has been very disciplined in not speaking up until it's absolutely necessary, though that still might not be enough. Quite simply, too many people dislike Reform to make the path to office anything other than rocky, regardless of its status as the largest party by seats.

That the coalition talks ended up involving EKRE was no huge surprise. I was saying towards the end of 2018 that the party was likely to be the kingmaker at the March election. There is in fact a lot more in common between Centre and EKRE than many would like to think. Centre is somewhat chameleon-like and can comfortably ditch some of its more socially liberal policies, to continue the reptilian analogy, like certain types of lizards can ditch a limb in order to escape from a predator. The two parties' platforms are sufficiently vague in places to make this process much easier, without anyone having to lose face. Neither party is hell-bent on making education in Russian-language areas purely Estonian-language, an issue which on its own an election could almost be fought on.

I don't know how well the Centre and EKRE leaders knew each other prior to the talks, but they are certainly much better acquainted now. They may even have ended up liking each other, who knows, but as the talks rumbled along, with absolutely nothing remarkable covered, while we may have run out of road, the key players would have got more comfortable with each other, and, for what it's worth, the public got more used to the idea as well.

This resignation to whatever will happen may be a societal hallmark in this part of Europe — and the protests against the talks have been notably wary, effectively refusing to call themselves what they are ("this is aimed at no political party in particular"). However, two have been playing at that game — we have very little concrete on what the coalition has agreed on, and have not seen anything signed yet.

EKRE is enjoying its time in the limelight. I said they would be kingmakers — in fact it, might be more accurate to say it was "king-made," taking advantage of the "new Centre" adjustment of its demographic to mop up more than a few of its former voters.

Estonia's size and geographic location means it sneaks under the radar much of the time; occasional international media reports about the rise of the far-right don't make many waves here, and [ALDE chief] Mr Verhofstadt sticking his oar in only served to strengthen EKRE and its supporters' resolve.

Kaalep no major liability

A scene which I think summed it up came last week when a handful of rather down-at-mouth-looking individuals picketed the Stenbock House, the venue for the coalition discussions, holding placards. Mart Helme, a very intimidating man I expect, bellowed at them as he arrived — their comeback, since they had the opportunity to speak to a potential coalition government minister? Simply to stand there, gazing into space. Devastatingly effective stuff...

EKRE could probably do just as much damage in opposition as it could in office, which is another strand to the question. Has Jüri Ratas in fact just wanted to keep tabs on them? Quite possibly. The historical precedent for doing this is not great — this is how the National Socialist Party ended up in the Reichstag, of course.

Now we have the Ruuben Kaalep revelations in front of us (an active member of various far-right groups, very much down with the white supremacist code-speak, pictured making an unpleasant gesture behind a Jewish man), the neo-Nazi appellation is looking perfectly appropriate now. EKRE is unlikely to rein the man in; that would be showing weakness, and they probably don't really care all that much. We're too late in the day and Mr Kaalep is too minor a player for it to alter anything regarding the potential coalition, although the association could end up damaging Centre's credibility.

Like the man in that Ian McEwan novel hanging on to the runaway balloon until he's floated too high to jump, instead plunging to his death, Centre has hung on with EKRE too long to come out and say "ha ha ha, gotcha — now let's go and talk to Reform." However, the get-out is likely to be the vote in the Riigikogu. The coalition lineup only has a margin of six seats. Raimond Kaljulaid may have taken a couple with him; there may even be a couple of Isamaa dissenters, given that party is not likely to get its cherished second pillar pension reform on to any agreement document.

As noted, nothing has been signed yet, but it probably doesn't need to be. MPs will be voting on the alignment, and even more so, the leaders, not a document — they could have a new law for free teddy bears in there for what difference it makes. If the coalition becomes reality (and I don't think it will), Jüri Ratas emerges on top, with EKRE indebted to him. If it does not, Jüri Ratas emerges on top, able to call a lot of the shots with Reform. In this wider world of Brexit chaos and unruly MPs, it doesn't get much better than that.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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