Reform Party’s ultimatum to the Center Party, Center’s ultimatum to the Reform

Mikk Salu
, ajakirjanik
Good mood, but harsh words. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas announced at a government press conference yesterday, sitting behind a table with Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas (left) and Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab, that if the Center Party does not withdraw the draft child benefit, it is ready to make a final decision with the government.
Good mood, but harsh words. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas announced at a government press conference yesterday, sitting behind a table with Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas (left) and Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab, that if the Center Party does not withdraw the draft child benefit, it is ready to make a final decision with the government. Photo: Madis Veltman
  • The government’s collapse has never been that close during this coalition.
  • The Reform Party views the Center Party as a traitor.
  • Center Party wants to establish its narrative of the necessity of increasing children’s subsidies.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, Chairperson of the Reform Party, lost her nerve on Thursday. The Reform Party obviously opposed from the start the bill of raising children’s support, which the Center Party has unexpectedly bought out, and the party had also agreed the day before to tell the Centrists clearly that moving on with the bill would mean the breaking up of the coalition.

But there was also the idea of grounding the conflict in a more diplomatic manner. To pat the centrists on their heads, saying that it is a fine idea but we first have to discuss and calculate and let us handle this issue in the autumn. Yet it did not happen this way. The issue escalated over the day instead.

First, the traditional breakfast of Kaja Kallas and Jüri Ratas was canceled on Thursday morning. They have an agreement of meeting once a week at a breakfast to discuss politics together. But Ratas now canceled the breakfast meeting. The government press conference initially moved on in its customary and sleepy way, but when the health of the government was mentioned, Kallas became clearly annoyed one moment and snapped: “All tight, act like men and announce a move of no confidence, stop fooling around.”

The tension only increased over the following hours. “If this bill should be passed, I shall resign and try to form a coalition with Isamaa and the Social Democrats,” Kallas announced. “Such bitterness should not be displayed in public. Kallas herself has ended the coalition with her statements,” Ratas replied via ERR. And a closer study reveals that the press has sometimes blown up some words or sentences, e.g. Delfi, which placed Kallas’ words under the heading: “The Prime Minister says that the Centrist coalition partners are not men enough to start a no confidence move”.

No negotiations are held, party leaders assure

The leaders of the political parties keep assuring at the same time that there are no negotiations in progress at present to form a new coalition. Helir-Valdor Seeder (Isamaa) denies it, Martin Helme (EKRE) denies it as well and so does Jaanus Karilaid (Center). The Reform Party sources also assure Postimees that as far as they know, there have been no agreements to form a new government. In other words, this quarrel is being picked as an improvisation. Yet, to recall Estonia’s political history, the change of governments happens quickly and in secret. Accordingly, nothing can be ruled out.

The behavior of both the Reform and Center parties has its own logic in terms of escalation of the present conflict. The Reform Party has been highly active in recent months. It has rapidly made a number of major decisions. Their voters have recognized the party’s efforts and a number of those who meanwhile looked towards Eesti 200 have now moved back to the fold. The “squirrel party” can present a clear success story to its electorate.

While the rating of the Reform Party dropped to the fourth place in the beginning of this year, the party is presently predominant. Its strategists say that being driven to the opposition would not actually pose a problem for the Reform Party. Not that this is their goal but they are prepared for it. In such case, the Reform Party could tell a simple and straightforward tale to its voters: the treacherous United Russia-aligned Center Party decided to cooperate with the Russia-praising Mart Helme during a (military) crisis only for the sake of ratings. Kallas was already laying the foundation for this approach at Thursday’s press conference.

The Center Party’s situation is much less pleasant and it is more difficult for them to present a legend they could sell the public. Karilaid directly explains Postimees that the Reform Party has the war in Ukraine and supporting Ukraine – “and we have supported them one hundred percent in these matters” –, but the Center Party wants the government’s agenda to include more items than these two. National security is not the Center Party’s forte. They need besides national security (because this issue cannot be avoided either) some other issues which would allow them shine.

If we take a somewhat broader view, we cannot brand the Center Party’s actions mere political intrigue. The political-tactical considerations are there all right but there is also more than that. The Center Party’s worldview has always been about supporting the weak and distributing money. This is part of their DNA. Raising subsidies for children does not contradict the Center Party’s views in any way, on the contrary.

Accordingly, Karilaid tells Postimees at length that this is a beautiful idea and a great bill and that the Reform Party could back it as well. And although one of Karilaid’s goals in the context of the coalition row is to establish the narrative “We want to increase support to children” and to avoid the narrative of the treacherous Center Party’s venture, the idea as such dovetails neatly with the Center Party’s background system. After all, the “beautiful idea” received the support signatures from parties with rather contradictory views like Isamaa, EKRE and the Social Democrats. It is, of course, especially evident in case of Isamaa because the bill, despite its minor amendments, was drafted by Isamaa and taken over by the Center Party.

Possible coalitions

The Center Party also suffers from internal contradictions. The Center ministers are more or less happy with the present government and prefer carrying on as before. And why not, they have a fine post, a great job, a car and other benefits. There are much more tensions in the Center faction. It includes six or seven members, who would not stand for parliament next time or would be placed at the bottom of the list; this means that they are totally indifferent towards the welfare of the present coalition. And Ratas and Karilaid have to herd that bunch as well.

Mathematically speaking, four coalitions could be formed in the present parliament. The Reform Party and the Center Party. The Center Party, EKRE and Isamaa. The Reform Party, Isamaa and the Social Democrats. The Reform Party and EKRE. The latter can be ruled out at once, of course. Kallas said on Thursday that is the present government should fall and the president will task her with the forming of a new government, she would attempt to form a coalition with Isamaa and the Social Democrats. The Social Democratic leader Lauri Läänemets diplomatically announced in Facebook posting on Thursday that the Social Democrats are always ready for cooperation and sharing responsibility in the government. But this is the usual non-committal response of a politician.

Isamaa leader Seeder gives a similar response as Läänemets, but also adds that it is all pure speculation and there are no negotiations going on at present. Seeder says that he does not particularly believe in the stepping down of the present government and the forming of a new one. He cites purely technical issues, the timing and restrictions; moreover, the summer is coming up and the MPs’ and ministers’ vacations. “Forming a new government is a complicated business,” Seeder says.

Martin Helme is more spirited. The goal of EKRE is to get rid of the present government, but from there on, EKRE is prepared for everything, he declares. For a coalition or the opposition. “Early election will also be OK with us. We have reckoned with it. We have enough money on our account,” Helme assures. By the way, the Reform Party can boast of a similarly solid position. They could handle all options, including the early election.

Even if no one is currently negotiating over a new coalition, they all are raising the stakes. Just like Kallas declared on Thursday preparedness for the fall of the government, the Center Party hits back. “We prefer an agreement but we are also prepared to be in the opposition. This matter (the children’s benefits – ed.) is very important for our faction,” Karilaid declares.