By Martin Mölder (University of Tartu)
The new year in Estonian politics began with a political shock that came as a surprise to all and as a relief to many. Even though the 2019 parliamentary elections were won by the Reform Party, it did not get a chance to form a government back then. The Centre Party, which allied itself with the conservative parties Fatherland and the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (ECPP), continued as the party of the prime minister and the winner of the elections was played out of the coalition game. This government, which was subject to constant controversy involving the ECPP and led and held together by Jüri Ratas, endured until January 2021, when it suddenly became public that there was an ongoing investigation of corruption involving, first and foremost, the Centre Party and a major real-estate development project in Tallinn.
There was a suspicion that the party had asked for up to a million Euros in donations in exchange for favourable decisions for the real-estate developer. An advisor for the minister of finance, Martin Helme (ECPP), was also suspected to have been involved, but it was apparent that she was acting not in the interests of her party but for her personal benefit. This provided a pretext for Jüri Ratas as the leader of the Centre Party to resign as prime minister, ending the controversial coalition and giving Kaja Kallas of the Reform Party a second chance to form a government.
Having ruled out a coalition with the ECPP, Kallas did not have many options for forming a majority coalition. One possibility was to form a three-party alliance with Fatherland from the previous government and the Social Democrats from the opposition. And the other was to form a coalition with the Centre Party, which was just implicated in a corruption scandal. It seems that Kallas did not consider the three-party alliance and quickly allied her party with the Centre Party. There were suspicions that some kinds of talks had been underway already before the corruption scandal. The coalition negotiations went quickly and smoothly and the new government by the Reform Party and the Centre Party stepped into office two weeks after Jüri Ratas had announced his resignation. The outgoing prime minister did not continue in the new government and instead took his seat in the parliament.
For many, this was a relief as the involvement of the ECPP in the previous government was seen by the political opposition that extended beyond the bounds of the parliament as damaging the interests and image of the country. Yet, potential problems hover around the new coalition as well. First of all, the timing of the prosecutor’s office to make the ongoing investigation public raised suspicions of deliberate interference in the political process. It happened just one day before the parliament was to vote on a controversial bill for a referendum, which would have asked the opinion of the citizens of the country about keeping marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The brake-up of the coalition that immediately followed the announcement also cancelled all plans for the referendum.
The other issue with the new coalition is its composition. By keeping the Centre Party in power, Kaja Kallas is also sending a message that the suspicions of corruption that emerged around the party are not grounds enough for excluding the party from power. And the Reform Party itself is not without some skeletons in its closet. Only nine years has passed since the party was involved in a scandal of suspicions about illicit funding. More recently, the new minister of finance from the party was involved in a scandal of unlawful economic activities in relation to a company that was owned by her father. Although no official investigation was started in the first case and no convictions involving members of the Reform Party were made in the second, the image of the party suffered. Thus, the new government will most likely have clouds of corruption hovering over its head, no matter what the direction it takes the country in.
Regardless of everything, the public reception of the new government has been largely positive. It will have its hands full managing the coronavirus crisis and its aftermath and we will probably not see any major reforms and initiatives during this government. Even if the new government will not stand out politically, it does in other respects. In a heretofore male-dominated politics of the country, the new government stands out for its composition – 7 of the 15 ministers are women. Thus, both the head of state (the president) and the head of government are currently women.
The reasons that Estonia now has both a female president and a female prime minister are a mixture of coincidence, long-term trends and fluctuations of the political pendulum. On the one hand, the role of women in Estonian politics has been gradually increasing. After the elections in 1995, 11 of the 101 members of parliament were women and after the 2019 elections that number increased to 29. The role of men in politics is still clearly larger, but there is a trend towards more equality and the current government can be seen as part of that trend.
On the other hand, there was nothing deterministic in the reasons that led to Kersti Kaljulaid being the current president and Kaja Kallas being the current prime minister. The last presidential elections in 2016 failed in their first two rounds in parliament and the electoral college and the parties in parliament agreed on her presidency behind closed doors as, in a way, an emergency step to save face. And the fact that Kaja Kallas became the leader of her party a few years ago was the result of an internal crisis and power struggle within the Reform Party which had no pre-determined outcomes. And finally, we must consider the fact that this government replaces a conservative government, which was under much public criticism in general and in which women were heavily underrepresented. It is likely that to some extent Kaja Kallas, when putting together her government, also wanted to show that the new government is the opposite of the previous in all possible respects, including how it brings women into politics.
Photo source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stenbocki_maja_30-04-2013.jpg?fbclid=IwAR00M5u-sZKihJxzE2cZvwCUh15vMMt2L1CFIP_ejqKgTBNmttfZVXLAkWM