January 21, 2021

Liberal Estonia is Back—With Some Lessons Learned About Engaging with Radical Right-wing Populists

A man holds picture of the Estonia's Prime Minister Jüri Ratas as he protests against a coalition with the far-right nationalist EKRE party before the opening session of newly elected Estonian Parliament in Tallinn, Estonia April 4, 2019.
A man holds picture of the Estonia's Prime Minister Jüri Ratas as he protests against a coalition with the far-right nationalist EKRE party before the opening session of newly elected Estonian Parliament in Tallinn, Estonia April 4, 2019.

Coincidence or not, the Estonian government collapsed on 13 January, soon after the presidency of Donald Trump in the US made its violent turn towards an ugly end. During the past year and eight months, Estonia experimented with a coalition including radical right-wing populists. The experiment damaged Estonia’s international reputation and its relations with allies, put pressure on its democratic institutions, and increased polarisation within society.

The outgoing government, led by the Centre Party and with the radical right-wing Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) and mainstream national conservative Pro Patria as coalition partners, was justified by its leaders with the slogan of enhancing societal cohesion. The medicine offered for achieving greater cohesion was a return to a more conservative world-view, pushing back against an elite that was allegedly too liberal. The medicine turned out to be poisonous.

Pressure on Democracy and Human Rights

The push for conservative values was spearheaded with the plan, promoted by EKRE, to hold a referendum on whether marriage should be between a man and a woman. No matter what one thinks about marriage, the referendum campaign served to normalise harassment of minorities and brought into question the government’s respect for human rights and dignity. Public debate on the matter became increasingly polarised and the work of the Parliament (Riigikogu) came close to paralysis. At the same time, Estonian foreign policy took a step back from universal human rights by refusing to join an open letter of support for the Polish LGBT community which was signed by 50 countries, including most EU member states and the US.

On key foreign- and security-policy matters, the coalition agreement promised continuity, with Estonia’s commitment to EU and NATO membership a priority. Yet the government stumbled from one scandal to another due to statements by ministers insulting the prime minister of Finland and president-elect of the US, among others, and drawing a parallel between the EU and the Soviet Union.

Looking beneath such scandals, the outgoing government undermined Estonia’s security more fundamentally by calling into question the core values of democracy, the rule of law and human rights on which both the EU and NATO are built. Explicitly following models such as Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump, EKRE questioned the reliability of the Estonian electoral system, judiciary and free media. However, with 18% support and as one of three coalition partners, it was not able to actually impose the kind of restrictions on freedom of the judiciary and media that are in place in Hungary and Poland. Estonian democracy proved its resilience.

Can Mainstream Parties Provide New Solutions?

Formally, the government collapsed due to corruption allegations against the Centre Party, which are indeed a matter of serious concern, but the accumulation of tensions between the coalition partners undoubtedly contributed to prime minister Jüri Ratas’ decision to resign. The Centre Party is part of the new coalition formed by Kaja Kallas, leader of the Reform Party, which won the parliamentary elections in March 2019, which means that the same corruption allegations will overshadow the new government.

The new coalition consists of two parties that can be characterised as liberal—the Reform Party and the Centre Party—that together represent 52% of the electorate. Another liberal party, the Social Democrats, which received 10% of the vote, remains in opposition.

The yet-to-be-confirmed new prime minister, Kaja Kallas, had a simple message regarding the orientation of her government’s foreign policy: Estonia is back as an open and innovative northern European country that has shared values with its allies and partners. Close cooperation with the new US administration will be a top priority—and certainly easier to promote now that the Trumpian party that publicly questioned Joe Biden’s election victory is out of power.

The main lesson learned for other Western countries experiencing similar political trends is that including radical populists in government does not solve the problems that explain their rise, such as alienation and bitterness among sections of society. The forces that build their support on polarisation can hardly be helpful in reducing it. If mainstream parties fail to come up with other solutions, further erosion of democracy seems hard to avoid.


Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).