Ratas to continue as PM in EKRE government

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas.

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

The scandal surrounding Minister of Rural Affairs Mart Järvik turned into a government crisis yesterday when the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) laid down an ultimatum that would see it leave the government should Järvik be forced to resign.

PM Jüri Ratas who seemed resolute before meeting with the minister yesterday ended the evening where it had started. Järvik remains in office as does the government but so do suspicions surrounding the rural affairs minister. The PM admitted as much after the meeting.

Returning from a trip abroad yesterday morning, Ratas initially said the last few days have not brought clarity and that rather the opposite is true. Next, Ratas went to meet with representatives of the Center Party’s coalition partners. The sides’ positions became even more rigid after this meeting, especially those of the national conservatives.

EKRE deputy chair, Minister of Finance Martin Helme said that Järvik quitting would constitute a government crisis. “We will not have a government then,” he said when asked what would happen were Ratas to decide Järvik has to go.

EKRE has no criticism for its minister

Things are simple from EKRE’s point of view. A situation where its coalition partners do not trust its minister means Center and Isamaa no longer trust EKRE, in which case there would be little sense in continuing in the coalition. Helme said that EKRE has no criticism for Järvik and that he fails to see reason not to trust the minister. Even though Helme toned down his language after meeting with Ratas and Isamaa chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder yesterday, his position remained unchanged. “We stand behind our minister,” he said.

Having to replace another one of its ministers would be too much for the party to swallow. Giving up on Kert Kingo was painful enough, reflected in members and supporters criticizing the party for caving to pressure. EKRE simply cannot do something like that again after such a short time. The party communicated as much.

The national conservatives’ no highway reaction sparked the following comment from Ratas. “Ultimatums are not the way to solve such crises,” the PM told the Reporter news program before meeting with Järvik. “I want to restore peace, but suspicions or doubts cannot be left in the air of course.”

“Politics cannot be successfully pursued in the language of ultimatums. I believe all three sides of the coalition realize this,” Helir-Valdor Seeder said, echoing Ratas.

The PM sought to dispel the said suspicions and doubts after his meeting with Järvik that started at 6 p.m. At the same time, it was clear that Ratas could only continue as PM if Järvik continued as rural affairs minister. His choice, then, was to either convince Järvik to resign of his own free will or maintain the status quo to allow things to cool down and gain time.

Mart Järvik’s work at the ministry has likely been damaged beyond repair. The minister has fallen out with at least two agencies in his administrative area and with the secretary general. Järvik sought to solve the latter problem by proposing the government fire Secretary General of the Ministry of Rural Affairs Illar Lemetti. One would expect the government to approve such a proposal in a situation where the minister and the secretary general have fallen out. But not this time. Postimees’ information suggests EKRE is alone in its demand as neither the Center Party not Isamaa see any reason to fire the secretary general. What is more, Seeder commended Lemetti yesterday for when they worked together.

Ratas also said that firing Lemetti will not be discussed during the government sitting on Thursday.

Things are much more complicated when it comes to Järvik. Considering how firmly father and son Helme stood behind the rural affairs minister, it was to be expected he would not resign himself. Rather, Martin Helme’s ultimatum robbed him of the opportunity as it would prove fatal for the governing coalition. This means that Ratas’ chance was to have Järvik explain matters and perhaps find a way not to demand his resignation.

The PM gains time

“I’m still minister,” was Mart Järvik’s only message for journalists after the rather short meeting at Stenbock House. This meant that Ratas was playing for time to allow passions to cool. Neither Järvik nor EKRE would resign, with the government staying together for now.

«I’m still minister,» was Mart Järvik’s only message for journalists after the rather short meeting at Stenbock House.

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Järvik’s departure from Stenbock House was followed by the arrival of Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center) who worked as Ratas’ closest adviser for a long time before becoming minister and was one of the architects of the government.

Ratas met with journalists after that whom he told he did not get the answers he was hoping for from the rural affairs minister nor did he gain trust for Järvik. “These suspicions against him, it did not change my perception nor lent any clarity to the matter,” he said.

This means that the status quo regarding Järvik persists as far as the PM in concerned. What now? “Give it some time, these things will have to be discussed in a few days’ time,” Ratas said. The PM needs to talk to both his coalition partners and his party.

This might not mean the government has survived the crisis. Utterances have been too strong for that, while the underlying reason for the crisis has not gone anywhere. Suspicions concerning Järvik’s actions persist.

It is also not out of the question that Ratas’ play for time is necessary for meeting with other political parties. The political situation has been discussed in several circles lately. Ratas would be better positioned for negotiations with other parties in a situation where he still had a government, albeit a wounded one.