Center opens door to EKRE

Urmas Jaagant
, reporter
Photo: Remo Tõnismäe / Postimees

After the weekend’s calm, with the exception of a few conversations over the phone, a true rally of party meetings kicked off yesterday. The most noteworthy result was the Center Party’s invitation to launch coalition talks with the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) and Isamaa. In the evening, when Isamaa leader Helir-Valdor Seeder was giving a live interview, saying his party will accept the invitation, EKRE confirmed willingness to engage in talks with Center and Isamaa in a press release.

Chairman Mart Helme said that the possibility of such a coalition was discussed as early as on Election Day. This confirmed the Reform Party’s conviction that this recent coalition option was on the table even before it made its proposal to Center.

“This news places Center’s decision to not even talk to us in a new light, no matter how high-sounding the explanations,” Reform Party Chairman Kaja Kallas wrote in her blog. “It also speaks of a desire to hold on to the prime minister’s chair no matter what, despite the fact the voter wanted change and a new PM.”

Center Party leader Jüri Ratas said that the consultations will not be easy for any participant. “There is also no certainty these talks will culminate in a coalition,” his address read. “The Center Party will take no preconditions or prejudice to the table.”

It is noteworthy that these preconditions existed only a few months ago. Jüri Ratas has said, quite unequivocally, in the past that Center will not form a coalition with EKRE. He said in an interview in October: “When I said that a party that wants to see heads roll, that disagrees with certain nationalities or races – it is impossible for me to work with them, and EKRE have said those things.”

Ratas started to mitigate his words in the days following the elections: “What I’ve said is that it will be difficult for me to work with EKRE if they do not change their values. If they are willing to, then it is something we can discuss.”

While discussions are only beginning, past practice suggests the sides have already agreed on critical lines or at least have certainty a deal can be made by the time coalition talks are launched.

The question is one of common ground in terms of Estonian-language education, the citizenship issue, registered partnership act, right down to the future of Rail Baltic. EKRE has sported a categorically different view on all these issues compared to other major parties. Mart Helme said the party would go into talks without any red lines, while EKRE Deputy Chairman Martin Helme told Delfi earlier that refusal to repeal the registered partnership act would likely constitute a deal-breaker.

Such and many other positions of EKRE mean that Center is hardly united when it comes to this coalition option. Center’s board members who voted against launching talks included Yana Toom, Mihhail Kõlvart, Raimond Kaljuilaid and Vadim Belobrovtsev.

The four are united in representing the interests of Center’s Russian voters who might not be thrilled about the prospect of working with the national conservatives. Yana Toom has been blunt in that she would not like a coalition with EKRE and would still prefer working with the Reform Party. Center is sure to have members who will try to stop it marrying two conservative parties.

A solution for Center might be found in the classic practice of simply ignoring differences and not agreeing on things that are not essential. Insurmountable differences would simply see some topics shelved and avoided in the coalition’s work.

The benefit of this coalition for Ratas would be the chance to retain the prime minister’s seat. He has promised to take his party to the government and has previously said that the premiere’s position is the only one that interests him.

Being the leading force in the government would hold another benefit for Center. The party’s elections campaign and several costly court cases have left it in a difficult positions financially. Ratas’ party having the keys to Stenbock House would give businessman continued reason to dial the numbers of leading centrists.

It is obvious what Isamaa would stand to gain from the coalition: their course of moving closer to EKRE has paid off and might now take them to the government. It is another matter whether they would manage to keep their own face next to the larger conservative party.

Center, EKRE and Isamaa need to get consultations underway and demonstrate progress in moving toward a positive result for as long as the right to form the next government resides with Kaja Kallas.

If Ratas manages to hold the sides together long enough for Kallas’ chance to expire, Center will be next in line for a presidential proposal to form the government. Then, Ratas will have to reach an agreement that can satisfy all three sides.