Coalition stumbles twice

Minister of the Interior Mart Helme after a vote of no confidence.
Minister of the Interior Mart Helme after a vote of no confidence. Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

Tuesday marked a dark day for Estonia’s ruling coalition as almost everything that could go wrong did. Two significant votes in the Riigikogu had nothing positive in store for any of the three partners. Isamaa refused to support their coalition partner EKRE Minister of the Interior Mart Helme during a vote of no confidence, while the reversal of Estonia’s planned pharmacy reform that Isamaa sought fell through.

The latter constituted the more important vote of the day for the coalition. Draft legislation in question sought to lift all pharmacy market restrictions planned in the initial reform that have rubbed pharmaceutical wholesalers and pharmacy chains – largely one and the same in Estonia – the wrong way from the first.

The bill was championed by Isamaa and supported by the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE). Things were more complicated when it came to coalition leader the Center Party several MPs of which had resisted the plan to scrap the reform both publicly and in private.

Three proposals

Before the vote, parties made three proposals in terms of how to proceed, with the Riigikogu Social Affairs Committee suggesting the bill should be taken forward, the Center Party proposing stalling the matter and the social democrats that it be blocked. It was the latter proposal that was put to a vote, and amendments to the Medicines Act that would have seen the reform reversed were rejected, with 50 votes for and 46 against. “Today is not the best day for the coalition,” head of the social affairs committee Tõnis Mölder (Center) said.

One of the more vocal opponents of scrapping the reform was Mölder’s fellow Center Party member, Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik. Public critics of the amendments in recent days included Marika Tuus-Laul (Center), Peeter Ernits (EKRE) and Andrei Korobeinik (Center). “People have been told that motions to amend could be added after the bill passes its first reading, but the bill is beyond repair in its current form,” Tuus-Laul said before the vote.

Seven Center Party MPs ended up voting for rejecting the bill, including Korobeinik and Tuus-Laul, with Peeter Ernits abstaining. Even though Postimees’ information suggests several EKRE MPs were not happy with Isamaa for abstaining during the no-confidence vote brought against EKRE chairman, Minister of the Interior Mart Helme before the pharmacy reform vote, the national conservatives largely held the line and voted against rejecting the bill that would have effectively seen the pharmacy reform overturned. Mölder and head of the EKRE group Helle-Moonika Helme briefly left the floor before the vote and talked to several members of their parties upon their return.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas who has given Kiik very little public support when it comes to the pharmacy reform knew his faction was split, and Center decided not to enforce party discipline.

Isamaa was warned the day before yesterday that six Center votes might go astray. While this would suggest the amendments would have failed either way, the architects of the bill knew there were those in favor of stopping the reform in the opposition Reform Party. Information available to Postimees suggests the coalition was taken by surprise by Reform voting against the reform’s reversal in total agreement. This changed everything and gave supporters of the recent reform plan enough ammunition to sink the bill.

Disservice to oneself

The result owed partly to the no-confidence vote against Minister of the Interior Mart Helme that preceded the pharmacy reform vote. While the coalition is usually united in such cases, Isamaa MPs abstained from voting this time. This means they neither supported the motion of no confidence nor opposed it.

The move was aimed at the party’s voters to whom it would otherwise have been difficult to explain why Isamaa supports a minister who had recently meddled in the administrative area of their Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu. Isamaa’s decision was a serious blow to the Center Party but especially to EKRE whose chairman received fewer votes in support than he did against him. 44 MPs voted in favor of expressing no confidence in Helme and 42 against. While the motion failed as it takes 51 votes to express no confidence in a minister, it is nevertheless a bitter pill for the national conservatives to swallow.

Isamaa had an excuse – the coalition did not have a prior agreement in place for the vote. The party’s Riigikogu group warned its partners that they would abstain a few hours before the vote.

“This time, we had to choose between bad and worse,” Isamaa MP Mihhail Lotman said. A successful no-confidence motion against Helme would likely have seen the coalition collapse and Isamaa find itself in the opposition. “We are not a part of this government because we love the Center Party or EKRE; we’re here because we have a program we need to put into practice. That said, what Helme did (referring to insults aimed at Finnish PM Sanna Marin – ed.) is no longer just ugly, it is beyond what I can suffer,” Lotman explained. The experienced MP said that while Estonia has been praised and criticized in the past, the country has never been a laughingstock. “It is today. And it makes me feel wretched,” Lotman said, pointing to the international press picking up what Helme had said about Marin and the Finnish government.

Kiik to bring new bill

While it cannot be ruled out that Isamaa’s conduct swayed a few undecided Center MPs to go against those seeking to overturn the reform yesterday, the decisive factor was the unity demonstrated by the Reform Party in supporting the reform.

What will become of the pharmacy reform now? We know that Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik is working on a bill of his own. It will likely reiterate the minister’s position that the reform must be taken forward and likely that pharmacies should be given longer than until April for ownership transfers.

While the Riigikogu would have a chance to propose motions to amend once more once the bill reaches the floor, draft legislation introduced by ministers can be withdrawn at any time should Kiik see things going awry.

Politicians also fear that forces seeking to sink the pharmacy reform might resort to more extreme measures and work toward a situation where as many pharmacies as possible would be forced to close their doors in April. It is also possible that those who oppose the reform today are right and hundreds of pharmacies would be forced to close shop anyway. In either case, the social minister would be the one responsible.

Isamaa faction chair Priit Sibul said as much when addressing the Riigikogu yesterday. “The government is naturally responsible for this situation, with executive power residing with the social minister in this case,” he said when asked who would be held accountable for hundreds of pharmacies going out of business in April.

Therefore, yesterday saw Center and EKRE suffer losses in Helme’s no-confidence vote and Isamaa lose ground in the pharmacy reform vote.