Opinion: President keeping pot boiling on rival's own bid

President Kersti Kaljulaid in the Riigikogu, wearing a sweatshirt that says
President Kersti Kaljulaid in the Riigikogu, wearing a sweatshirt that says "Speech is Free," as members of Jüri Ratas' second government take their oaths of office. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

In a recently-published Foreign Policy interview, President Kersti Kaljulaid said she "hates" the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) for their actions and added that part of her present role involves putting out fires and mending Estonia's reputation abroad. The timing of the interview's publication might seem surprising, and even as one action in a much broader battle between the incumbent president and a would-be successor, ERR News editor Andrew Whyte writes.

That the episode arrives in the middle of the summer holidays might have been the first sign that something unusual was up. The intention probably wasn't to slip the interview under the radar at home, when everyone is on vacation. The opposite, in fact: people at home were meant to see this, to keep things at least on semi-alert and to prevent the current state of play getting normalized. An interview in a major U.S. publication – Estonia getting mentioned internationally – is the very way to do just that. That said, the interview was conducted in May, just before the European elections, so it may have been Foreign Policy's own scheduling at work.

Kaljulaid is also the one and only person who has the significance to actually tell off EKRE. This is no coincidence, and not about appearing a "strong woman," or having superior intellect. The roots of the standoff – Helme's response was to say the president had overstepped her constitutional limit and should resign – lie not only in EKRE being part of the current government and how they got there, but just as much in how Kersti Kaljulaid became president in the first place.

On April 24, just as the Centre-EKRE-Isamaa coalition was becoming a reality, Kersti Kaljulaid called for "100 hate-free days" in the wake of various verbal injunctions issued against gynaecologists, public broadcaster ERR, and other incidents, including revelations that a junior EKRE MP had a long history of involvement with fringe, and in some cases downright neo-Nazi, far-right groups.

The interview appeared on Thursday, July 18. That makes it 85 days, so the president could be said to have jumped the gun on her own deadline. EKRE members have hardly been playing along though – leader Mart Helme called the president an "emotionally upset woman" following the president's "Sõna on vaba" sweatshirt appearance, and her simultaneous snubbing of a would-be IT minister accused of domestic violence.

Helme has not been a reformed man since then. But the idea was the president's own: Helme to my knowledge did not sign up to the pledge, which was just that, and obviously not binding.

What Kaljulaid is doing is not unconstitutional as some have suggested: she can exercise an opinion and, a bit like the British monarch, guide and warn the government of the day, while not having any real executive power, just as you and I can do the same to each other, without overstepping the mark. There is also a distinction between individual and office. Kaljulaid, who set the tone for her office early on in rebuffing an offer from the head of the Lutheran church in Estonia for an inauguration service, is just as much speaking, she would no doubt say, as an individual as she is as president.

Estonia is only on its fourth president under the current constitution. The role is still to bed down somewhat, though the four to have held the post so far have been very different from one another. Meri, the jocose optimist, was followed by a more sober volte face with the old-school Arnold Rüütel. Then came the spry, urbane and intimidatingly self-assured Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Kersti Kaljulaid is none of those people and wouldn't want to be any of those figures. There is also a niggling doubt that the erstwhile candidate with a diplomat's background, Marina Kaljurand, might have smoothed things over. At the same time, it is anything but certain that this would have been viable in the longer term.

What we have, then, is Kaljulaid versus Helme. Is she trying to destabilize the current coalition to prepare the ground for a potential second vote of no-confidence in Helme in the fall? Well she would no doubt like that to happen, but not for its own sake, just for Estonia's image internationally.

We also have to turn the clock back on how she became president in the first place. After several inconclusive rounds at the parliament and the electoral college, which saw off Marina Kaljurand, Allar Jõks, Siim Kallas and others, Kaljulaid emerged as the dark horse in a one-candidate race, a non-partisan compromise, brought to the post by a small group of people going by the evocative title of the Riigikogu council of elders. This consists of the speaker of the house and his or her deputies, and the then six, currently five party leaders or their representatives. A deal behind closed doors saw Kaljulaid, a high-level civil servant representing Estonia at the European Court of Auditors, being jobbed into office that way as the sole option. There were 3 abstentions and 17 spoilt papers at the ensuing Riigikogu ballot. And yes, these would have included EKRE's members – at the time the party seats numbered only seven.

In her role at the auditor's court, Kaljulaid would probably have the dirt on some people. Some people might have the dirt, such as it is, on her. Significantly, two other politicos ran in the earlier presidential rounds who are towering figures from the major parties. One was Siim Kallas of Reform. The other, one Mart Helme.

Fast forward two-and-a-half years and we have a general election which sees Reform win the largest number of seats, but, with a gutted SDE left with only 10 seats, not able to get into office as the also diminished Centre immediately go off into a corner with EKRE, locking Reform out.

Reform caved after three or so weeks and tried once again to make overtures to Centre, but they knew it wasn't coming. Reform had said they would not work with EKRE. Whether that's true or not we may not know for a long time, but Centre – who had more in common with EKRE, as a populist party, than might be thought at first glance – had no scruples about going into office with Helme's party, and Isamaa were just happy to be there.

A friend of mine said that he did not accept the standard explanation that Centre would rather do a deal with the devil than with Reform, and that the latter has too many enemies. EKRE essentially came into office because they wanted to. They really wanted the situation they now have, with a Centre prime minister set on maintaining unity, because he has to, and a hostile president.

All of the parties had a recalibration of where they stand with the country; Centre lost a lot of its Russian-speaking vote, though it will probably recoup some of that, and Reform, while remaining popular, did not, and will not, hoover up any of that demographic. The way things looked after the election, better for Centre to hitch themselves to a party which is ambivalent about them and has the momentum, rather than their natural enemy.

There are two other considerations here that people from outside Estonia sometimes have a hard time grasping. One is the links that most likely all the political parties have to Russian money somewhere along the line, not just EKRE and Centre. The other is that it's not the done thing simply never to put up your hand and say mea culpa. The latter would be showing weakness, so Centre were never going to do that, and the meantime they might as well go with the only other party (EKRE) everyone is pointing the finger at as being Kremlin stooges. Nothing to lose.

The likelihood is that just as on a smaller scale, businessmen and women in Estonia donate money to more than one party to hedge their bets (Urmas Sõõrumaa, head of Estonia's olympic committee, donated, in total, hundreds of thousands of euros to both Reform and Centre, as well as Isamaa and Estonia 200, earlier this year), it is in the interests of others across the border to ensure there are multiple viable options on Estonia's political scene, as with the rest of Europe, but tailored to Estonia's own idiosyncrasies.

The president as the most recognized figure is not exempt from the calculations either. The fact is Estonia wouldn't have been big enough to have both Kaja Kallas as Reform prime minister and Kersti Kaljulaid as president, regardless of how well that would have sat with the EU and much of the rest of the "Western" world in having two women filling the top two posts. But the issue is really politics and not gender: Kaljulaid and the two current opposition parties were synonymous even when one was still in office (SDE), and despite her not being a party nominee. Kaljulaid did of course invite Kaja Kallas to form a government as the Centre/EKRE talks were drawing to a close.

We saw the same phenomenon in November 2016, just a month or so after Kaljulaid became president, when then-prime minister Taavi Rõivas, and Reform, were ousted from office. Rõivas had been premier around 18 months, and did not attack the media, the president, other politicians, doctors, academics, scientists and so on. Even the alleged swimming pool incident came about a year after Rõivas' vote of no-confidence. Kaljulaid's own half brother, Raimond, was another recent scalp, quitting the Centre Party after one day of being EKRE MP Ruuben Kaalep's deskmate at the Riigikogu.

It is a plain old grapple for power. Only the stakes are higher with the Helmes than with the other parties. And that is simply because they are just that – the Helmes plural, a family. No doubt both Centre leader Jüri Ratas and (new) Social Democratic Party (SDE) leader Indrek Saar have a bent for power too, but on a more provincial scale.

What we've seen recently is more: it is part of Mart Helme's next presidential bid, positioning himself accordingly, with his son Martin installed as prime minister no doubt a part of the plan. Helme senior himself has said that he would like majority power for EKRE. Well, that would be one way of doing it, and the longer the party is in office, the more legitimized it becomes with sections of the population, and the better placed for the next election.

For all the boobs and barbs, EKRE, like Donald Trump, and before him George W. Bush, only really succeed in alienating further all those who wouldn't vote for them anyway. We expats may well refer to EKRE as extremists, and we are right to do that – but they are not regarded in the same category at home. Kersti Kaljulaid going off to preach to the converted in the Western media is likely to be of limited positive effect on that score – but still she has to do it.

Estonian presidents are not directly elected by the people. But if Helme and EKRE managed to get a direct presidential elections bill passed at the Riigikogu in the next 12 months or so, we could be looking at a very different outcome.

Conversely, the pendulum may well swing back much sooner, even in the fall this year, when voting on various laws starts at the Riigikogu. This slots in to how Brexit pans out and what happens with the EU. This is not the first time a populist has had a potential run at the presidency and has wanted to change the system to pave their way – former long-time Centre leader Edgar Savisaar springs to mind. But the liberal side will need to tread carefully here: winning the propaganda war abroad need not mean losing it at home, something which, particularly if and when the next economic crash comes, could have drastic consequences.


ERR News always welcomes opinion pieces on all and any topical issues. Email submissions to [email protected].

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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