Kallas cannot find a place for Ratas in her government

Interviews with party leaders: Reform Party, Kaja Kallas.

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

If Kaja Kallas became prime minister, she would be hard-pressed to place current PM Jüri Ratas in her cabinet – she has not yet discovered Ratas to have any competencies. She sees herself as having the necessary skills to run at least three ministries.

You are prime minister, and it turns out the leading commercial bank in Estonia has engaged in money laundering. What do you do?

It is important to react decisively on the level of the state and say that we will eliminate such activity, punish those responsible and send a signal of zero tolerance when it comes to money laundering.

Let us presume that you are PM and it turns out your party’s campaign has been funded illegally. What would be your reaction?

Just as it was in 2012. Such things cannot be tolerated. But it is no longer possible in any case: the rules have been fixed. Cash donations are not allowed. Donations are the business of the secretary general, and I believe he has things under control.

It seems you would feel better at the head of the Reform Party as it was when it was first created: a right-liberal force. Today, the Reform Party is a mass party, just like the Center Party. Right?

Every organization develops in time, and that is how it should be. At first, people joined the Reform Party as it was when my father was chairman, following his example. I hope I will add something to the organization and take it in my own direction. Which is not to say the old will be discarded.

As the leader of a mass party, you are forced to convey conservative messages you do not really believe in. Why has the liberal wing of the party starved, while the conservatives have grown strong?

I represent positions I believe in, just as I have always done. Indeed, we have 12,000 members sporting very different views. Jokingly, we could say that people do not need to vote for any other party as people representing all manner of different views can be found in the Reform Party.

That is absurd.

It is not. We will need to agree on the steps we will take in the end. There are those sporting social ideas and those with more conservative views. We will not compromise when it comes to our core values.

What could that core value be for the Reform Party?

Our core value is that we do not punish ambition, support entrepreneurship and value freedoms. Those are the areas where we will not retreat.

At the same time, you are promising free lunches; for example, free kindergarten. Why go along with such nonsense?

It does not make sense to have paid and rather expensive preschool education in a system where people can attend university for free.

Your rhetoric matches that of national-patriotic parties – also the Center Party – in terms of the need to boost birthrate. How are you different?

It is patriotism. It is only natural, just as it is necessary that we stand for Estonia. We live in Estonia, we only have a small country. The state has two major goals: the survival of its people, culture and language and a functional economy. All decisions should support these goals.

Why can we see you mingling with children and the elderly and not entrepreneurs in election ads?

How would you put those entrepreneurs in that ad? In the words of Jean-Claude Juncker: we know what we must do, but first we need to win the elections. The economy makes up a vital part of our platform. Everything we do is to promote a more functional economy companies would find easier to navigate. That in turn is to boost tax revenue so people would be wealthier and live better.

Before you became chairman, Kristen Michal hinted that the Reform Party would consider working with the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE). You said you will not. What kind of a reaction did that spark at the party?

We discussed it in the board, and it was the common position of us all.

While the Reform Party’s rating is absolutely fine, Jüri Ratas is always chosen over you when people are asked to name favorites. Why is that?

Jüri Ratas is prime minister, and if you ask people who should be prime minister, then the incumbent is the first person they think of. It makes sense and is also how it’s been in the past. My support is considerable, considering I’m not PM.

Earlier in your campaign, you went after Ratas, but the tactic did not work. Why not?

Jüri Ratas is a nice person. And thoroughly round. Indeed, nothing sticks to him as he is brilliant at not answering questions. He is a friendly and lovable character. But it’s easy to be popular if you do not make decisions.

Why have you not obtained new competencies, seeing as people do not care about matters of the economy?

They do. Go and talk to people on the street. 385,000 people did not make use of their basic exemption because they were not thrilled by the prospect of having to return some of it. They are very unhappy with the system. I met with rescue workers in Keila, and I imagined we would be talking about internal security – they wanted to talk about the income tax system. Their salaries were hiked recently, but because they work several jobs, they will be moved to the next income tax bracket and lose their additional income. A pensioner who works as a mail carrier told me that it does not make financial sense for them to hold down the job.

Working pensioners are a very small voter group.

Let us look at unemployed people. You qualify for redundancy pay that is counted as income and requires you to return income tax. Or young mothers who have to return a part of their parental benefit. There are a lot of such disgruntled groups.

Because people did not make use of the exemption, sums the tax board will return this year might be bigger than last year.

That’s just the problem. People who could have used that money to invest in their family gave it to the state for a year free of charge. They will get it back, but its purchasing power will have fallen by then.

Let us presume you will win the elections. Which portfolio would you offer Ratas?

What competencies does Jüri Ratas have?

I’m asking you.

We have three problems when it comes to forming a government with Center. First of all, there’s tax policy: we want to have a basic exemption of €500 and a uniform system after that; they want progressive income tax. Secondly, citizenship policy: they want to abolish the language requirement, while we do not just want to give citizenship away. Thirdly, there’s education: we want it to be in Estonian starting in kindergarten; the Center Party does not. Provided Center is willing to compromise in these three aspects, the rest is negotiable. Once an agreement is reached, each party will decide its own ministers.

Indeed, but what could be Jüri Ratas’ competency?

I do not know his competency. I have not spotted it.

You have had so many debates, and yet you have not become acquainted with each other?

He is very good at presenting his arguments, but I cannot ascertain what it is he really knows, his passion. I just don’t know! When I was in the Riigikogu, Ratas was the deputy chair. He had a driver chauffer him around, but he never took part in the work of any committee.

Let us now presume Center will win the elections. What portfolio would you like in Ratas’ government?

We are working toward winning the elections. That is really not something I think about. But since I have been a lawyer for 14 years, I have quite a skill set in that area.

Justice minister.

Justice minister. I would also make it work in the foreign ministry as I also have foreign policy competency. I would also get by in the economy ministry, courtesy of corresponding competency.

What will you do should Reform fail to win the election – and worse – be left out of the government?

We are concentrating on winning the elections. One needs a mandate to form a government. Possible combinations and agreements will come on March 4.

Rumor has it that Kristen Michal is waiting for you to crash and burn to take over as chairman.

Michal is a member of our team. He is working to get results and focused on winning.

When you first ran in 2011, you got an individual mandate. What yielded you so many votes back then?

Feedback suggested I had a strong image in the private sector, that I’m capable of arguing my points, I’m well read and a lawyer by education.

How big of a role might your family name have played?

It surely had an effect. But there have been people with strong names who have not managed the same result.

To what extent have you felt uncomfortable over the fact Siim Kallas is more vocal on important issues than you are?

None whatsoever. If only in terms of asking a 41-year-old woman questions a la: while you are party leader, there has to be a man who… No. It is perfectly ordinary for a woman to lead a political party. My father is experienced, and that experience needs to be put to use. I do not make it a secret I seek his advice.

If politics was a dance, what would it be?

Talking about debates, people say “war of words”. I once read George Lakoff (and Mark Johnson’s – V. K.) book “Metaphors We Live By”, and he claims that if we change the metaphors, we change the entire situation. When we don’t say “war of words” but say “dance” instead – where one partner takes a step forward and the other a step back – it would be a far more harmonious outcome. What kind of a dance could it be…? I think it would be [Estonian folk dance] kaerajaan.