April 9, 2019

Estonia’s Risky Political Experiment

19.03.2019. Tallinn. A demonstration in front of Stenbock House.
19.03.2019. Tallinn. A demonstration in front of Stenbock House.

Following the parliamentary elections of 3 March, Estonian politics has been through an exceptionally troubling period.

On 8 April, a coalition agreement was signed by the second, third and fourth largest parties: the Centre Party, Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), and Pro Patria. The coalition has 56 seats in the 101-member Riigikogu.

The winner of the elections, the Reform Party, looks set to stay in opposition, although formally its leader Kaja Kallas is making an effort to form a coalition by 15 April. In case she fails to gather majority support in Riigikogu, which looks most probable at the moment, the process will move on to a vote over the three-party coalition.

The signed coalition agreement is scarcely worded on foreign and security policy. On the surface, it points to continuity, listing Estonia’s continued commitment to international law and principles of the UN, membership in the EU and NATO, strategic relations with the U.S. and Nordic and Baltic countries, regional security and good-neighbourly relations also with Russia. Defence spending is to remain at the level of 2 per cent of GDP at the minimum. As a new element, the three parties promise to invest more in trade promotion and supporting Estonian companies abroad.

The message of continuity is underscored by the announcement that the posts of both foreign and defence minister will go to Pro Patria. Jüri Luik, who is one of the most experienced and broadly respected members of Estonia’s foreign and defence policy establishment, will continue as defence minister. The foreign minister’s post will be assigned to Urmas Reinsalu, who has previously served inter alia as a minister of justice and minister of defence.

Yet, the coalition has already caused polarization within Estonia and a flurry of negative attention abroad. The most controversial issue is the inclusion of the populist, radical right-wing EKRE in government. The party campaigned on a strongly Eurosceptic and anti-immigration agenda. Its leaders have made statements that question the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the media, thus threatening to undermine some of the core pillars of the democratic system. Furthermore, several representatives of EKRE are known for racist rhetoric.

None of this is reflected in the coalition agreement. On the contrary, the document includes assurances that the coalition promotes a cohesive and tolerant society and condemns hatred between nations, antisemitism and rhetoric that creates cleavages in society. It is noteworthy that these assurances are placed in the beginning of the foreign policy chapter, presumably in order to alleviate the worries of Estonia’s allies and partners abroad.

One controversial point in the coalition agreement, pursued by EKRE, is the aim to increase the use of popular initiatives and referenda. The implementation of this proposal will, however, require change of the constitution, and thus the process will extend beyond the current four-year parliamentary period.

Proponents of the coalition argue that the radical right will be tamed through their inclusion in government and will speak and behave in a more responsible manner once in power. Estonia is about to enter a risky political experiment that will test whether this argument holds. The two mainstream parties represented in the coalition, the Center Party and Pro Patria, will carry a heavy responsibility for making sure that the radical rhetoric of EKRE will not be put into practice and Estonia will indeed remain a liberal democracy and a constructive member of the EU and NATO.

Read more on the background in this ECFR Commentary by Kristi Raik https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_estonias_cold_conservative_spring

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