By Vello Pettai (University of Tartu)
Estonia’s March 1 parliamentary elections were a victory for the incumbent prime minister, Taavi Rõivas, and his center-right (liberal) Reform Party. Capturing 30 out of 101 seats in the Riigikogu, the Reform Party (RP) came out on top, edging out the left-leaning Center Party, which got 27 seats.
After the poll, however, Rõivas (35) faced a dilemma, since his previous coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SD), lost four seats (falling to 15), and was thereby no longer in a position to maintain their two-party government that had come to power in March 2014. Likewise, Rõivas could not rely on another historical partner, the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, since the PPRPU had lost even more support and was down to just 14 seats (-9).
Indeed, the parliamentary arithmetic was made even more complicated by the fact that two new parties also entered the Riigikogu: the right-wing Estonian Conservative People’s Party (7 seats) and the center-right Free Party (8 seats). The former was an overhauled version of the agrarian Estonian People’s Union, but with a major shift toward Estonian nationalism and Euroscepticism. It drew many votes away from the PPRPU. Meanwhile, the Free Party was a protest party related to political system reform. Many of its leaders came from the PPRPU, but they also attracted a number of cultural figures and drew on a civil society movement from 2012 that had demanded greater openness and transparency in Estonian politics. In particular, the Free Party placed at the center of its campaign the demand for a 50% reduction in the amount of state funding given to Estonian political parties, alleging that a cartel party system had emerged in the country and that this needed to be broken up.
In this context of six parliamentary parties, Taavi Rõivas opted interestingly for an initial attempt to form an oversize coalition with SD, PPRPU and the Free Party. This echoed an attempt his predecessor, Andrus Ansip, had tried in 2007 with the short-lived Greens party.
But just as theory would tell us, this attempt failed, and some 10 days after the talks began, Rõivas was forced to abandoned the Free Party, in part over the latter’s demand for a reduction in state financing for parties.
This left Rõivas in a well-known situation of having to negotiate with the PPRPU and the Social Democrats – a triumvirate, which has governed Estonia at least three times in the past. In this respect, none of the three parties appeared very excited at the prospect, since earlier squabbles and government collapses had all left their mark. There was a great deal of wariness in the air as the parties negotiated for more than a week.
But on April 8, the three sides signed a 40-page coalition agreement that had been grudgingly approved by their respective party councils, and on April 9, Rõivas was re-appointed to office by the Riigikogu. The cabinet portfolios were divided up more or less proportionally, with RP getting 7 appointments and the PPRPU and the SD each getting 4. However, the gender balance was atrocious: 2 out of 15 ministers were women.
In addition to the prime minister’s position, RP retained the foreign ministry and the interior ministry. The Social Democrats’ leader, Sven Mikser, stayed on as Defense Minister, while his colleague Urve Palo was slightly downgraded from her previous post as economics minister to one of enterprise and foreign trade.
Meanwhile, the leader of the PPRPU, Urmas Reinsalu, was given the post of justice minister. But his position was mixed, since shortly after his party’s disappointing performance in the election he had announced that he would not stand for re-election as party chair. Hence, in early June the party will elect a new leader, who may need to be fitted into the cabinet, if he/she does not come from among the other PPRPU ministers in the new government. One front-runner is the new minister for social affairs, Margus Tsahkna. The PPRPU also saved some face by getting the finance minister’s post for its member, Sven Sester.
Yet, as the government began its work, the opportunity to control Estonia’s finances quickly became more of a headache than a godsend. In order to clobber together a three-party coalition, Rõivas had agreed to go along with a string of different tax reductions and social benefit increases, which quickly cast a shadow on how these would be financed. Essentially, the coalition had agreed that they would raise a number of consumption taxes, most prominently on fuels, including gasoline.
This quickly prompted a number of public objections, not only from business groups, but also from the new Conservative People’s Party, which sought to take a very prominent role in the new opposition despite its small size. The populist party staged a rally of some 1000 people in front of parliament, and clearly drew on an important current of disaffection within the populace.
Prime Minister Rõivas repeated his stance that the government would stick to its coalition agreement. But perhaps most worrying was the fact that sniping could also be heard from members of each of the coalition parties. Many observers noted that no Estonian government since re-independence in 1991 had gotten off to such a rocky start.
Some of this headwind was lessened by the fact that the prime opposition party, the Center Party, was also in a situation of flux and therefore not attacking the government as much as it might have. In mid-March, its leader, Edgar Savisaar (64), was rushed to a hospital after a scrape he had suffered on his leg had deteriorated into a toxic infection and blood poisoning. In order to protect his life, doctors amputated the lower part of one of his legs. However, they also predicted that it would take him months to recover if he wanted to return to active politics. (Savisaar is also mayor of Tallinn.)
In the interim, the Center Party appointed as its leader Kadri Simson. However, Savisaar was very much the glue that kept together the party’s Estonian and Russian blocs. Should he not return to politics, the party will have a tough balancing act to work out in order to continue to be effective.