Analysis: Final days of Kaja Kallas’ government

Mikk Salu
, ajakirjanik
Photo: Eero Vabamägi
  • There are still some days left to stop the disintegration of the government.
  • One of the two – Kallas or Ratas – must give way.
  • Monday saw the first step towards the breakup of the government.

We are probably viewing the last days of this government. Formally it should take a few more steps but both the Reform Party and the Center Party have positioned themselves in such a way that escaping the government crisis has become increasingly unlikely.

The cause (or the motive, depending on the interpretation) of the conflict is the bill to increase child support. Unless the Reform Party starts parliamentary obstruction of the bill (block the bill with hundreds of amendment proposals), the second and third readings of the bill will take place next week and the law will be passed. This would mean – as Kaja Kallas has repeatedly said – the end of the coalition.

For the time being, they are still moving one step at a time. The Reform Party submitted a proposal to the Riigikogu on Monday to withdraw the bill. This proposal was not supported by the majority of the Riigikogu, which means that the bill will go on. “Now we shall have to decide what to do next,” says Mart Võrklaev, the leader of the Reform Party faction.

The Reform Party’s next theoretical move would be the obstruction. Kallas has hinted at this option but Võrklaev tells Postimees that no decision regarding obstruction has been made. In any case they should act quickly because the deadline for submitting the amendments necessary for the obstruction is Wednesday, June 1. In fact, the obstruction policy does not seem to be practical because the people generally do not favor such nonsense and it would be more difficult for the Reform Party to sell that move to the public.

The quarrel between the Reform Party and the Center Party, which erupted very abruptly almost three weeks ago, has not made any progress in the meantime. Neither coalition partner has taken a step towards each other, at least not in public; while their communication has remained resolute.

An extended meeting of the Center Party board was held on Sunday. There were 45 people present; besides the board, there were also the ministers and members of the Riigikogu, and in the end the given mandate was confirmed: whatever happens, they will go all the way with the child benefit bill. “The Center Party is unanimous about raising the child support,” said Jaanus Karilaid, the leader of the Center Party faction.

Similarly, the Reform Party has not changed its position. Since the beginning of the quarrel until now, both Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and the faction leader Mart Võrklaev have been stating that the child benefits issue must be discussed within the framework of the state budget in the autumn. Kallas has also made it clear that the keys to resolving the conflict are in the hands of the Center Party. “We have not created this situation, therefore we cannot de-escalate.” (Postimees, May 28).

No attempts to seek for solution

Instead of seeking a solution, both parties have attempted to fit the conflict into a narrative appropriate to their interpretation of the government dispute and possible disintegration. At the same time, post-government options are already being considered.

The story told by the Reform Party is simpler. “It has nothing to do with helping children; what they want is to break up the government,” says Võrklaev. The Center Party wants to undermine the Reform Party, the Center Party is preparing for the next coalition or bringing Isamaa and EKRE back to the government. Reform Party members deliberately formulate it through the phrase “Return of EKRE-IKE”.

Additionally the Reform Party is presenting itself as a constructive force which can act quickly and decisively in a difficult security situation. Even Kaja Kallas's aforementioned statement about the de-escalation of the government crisis was compared with the war in Ukraine. In short, the Center Party has undertaken a political adventure, or expressed more loosely: those against us or currently overthrowing the government are supporting Putin.

The Reform Party's narrative is logical. Firstly, there is a grain of truth in it, even if a little overplayed at times (references to the war in Ukraine and Putin). The reform Party electorate accepts it and it is easier to understand. The wider societal background also favors this. Most political observers and the media are favoring the Reform Party anyway. Or, if not favoring them, then at least are negative towards the Center Party. As the onetime Centrist and current Social Democrat Raimond Kaljulaid ironically characterizes the media scene: “The Reform Party is good. The Center Party is evil. EKRE is worse still and the Social Democrats and Isamaa do not exist at all.”

The Center Party’s story to be presented in the upcoming collapse of the government against the background of child benefits is more complicated. For some time, Karilaid used the words “this is a beautiful idea”, “such a beautiful idea” and “the Reform Party should come along with this beautiful idea” to defend the bill. Even if it was sincere, it still sounded a little hollow.

Meanwhile, the Centrists have recovered and started to express themselves more clearly. It might partly be due to the way in which the Reform Party has somewhat overplayed its strong hand – all the reference to the war and the highlighting of Ukraine in the context of a domestic political dispute. For example, Karilaid sends a mail to the Postimees journalist with a link to the speech of Anu Toots, a political scientist at Tallinn University, in which Toots criticizes the attitudes, which refer to the difficult security situation and claim that the differences between political parties must be forgotten, so as not to rock the government’s boat. “This is the way to an autocratic society,” Toots said. Similar accusations – that not all things can be hidden behind the war in Ukraine – have been made elsewhere.

The Center Party similarly blames Kaja Kallas for the arrogance she sometimes displays. They quote with pleasure Kallas’ words that preparing for the NATO summit leaves her no time for government negotiations. It is supposed to show that the prime minister does not care about Estonia’s affairs and a Center Party top official snidely remarked: “Dozens of Estonian officials are preparing for the NATO summit, while the prime minister just reads the briefings.”

It is actually not about which party’s – the Reform Party's or the Center Party's – narrative of the government’s breakdown is better. Both have their own point of view and their own logic. The Reform Party's is clearer and more specific. The Center Party’s one is somewhat vague. In the end, it's just a prelude anyway. Much depends on what will happen next. If Kallas’ government falls, which government will be next, what will happen in the autumn, what other problems will arise and which arguments to use for next year's election.

Possible options

The ratings of the parties published last week showed that the rating of the Reform Party improved slightly and that of the Center Party declined slightly. However, the changes were so small that it is not worth drawing far-reaching conclusions about whether and how they were affected by the ongoing government crisis. And as has been said, it is only a prelude. Important events will happen later, and in March 2023, no one will remember exactly why the Kallas government fell.

Apparently, both the Reform Party and the Center Party have at least mentally played through all the variants. The possible new coalitions, joining the opposition and even the extraordinary election. The latter option is rather unlikely, as it could suit the Reform Party and to some extent EKRE, but not the other parliamentary parties.

When the child support bill conflict broke out, the public perception was dominated by the idea that it was all about a plan of Jüri Ratas and Jaanus Karilaid for form a government with EKRE and Isamaa. This possibility exists indeed but it is hardly a certainty. There are also Centrists who would prefer to continue with the Reform Party, provided that the latter accept the increase of child benefits. There are also others who think that it would not be a bad idea to go to the opposition before the cold and rainy autumn arrives with its smell of price rise and energy crisis.

The Reform Party is facing more or less the same choices. They can go on with the present government provided the Center Party gives up increasing the child benefits. They can attempt a new coalition with Isamaa and the Social Democrats, but ending up in the opposition would not be disastrous either.

Continuing with the Reform and Center parties’ government would require that either Kaja Kallas or Jüri Ratas give up something important. Such a retreat is increasingly difficult to imagine.

Extraordinary election is unlikely

The Constitution and the Riigikogu election act provide three options for holding extraordinary election. The election can be declared by the President; in two cases it is his obligation while in one case he is free to choose whether to do it.

First, if the Riigikogu submits a bill to a referendum and it does not find the support of the people, the President must declare extraordinary election. This can be ruled out because no such move is currently expected.

The second option would mean that the candidate for the head of government proposed by the president will not be able to form the government. If the prime minister-designate fails, the president can choose the next person. If that one also fails, then it is the turn of the Riigikogu to nominate a candidate. If that person also fails to form the government, the president will declare extraordinary election. If Kaja Kallas’ government were to fall now, then it could theoretically happen, but it would require quite a few moves and failed attempts to form the government.

Thirdly, if the Riigikogu votes no confidence in the government or the prime minister, the president may declare extraordinary election. Note the word “may”. If in other cases the president is obliged to call extraordinary election, then in this case it is a question of the president's choice. Theoretically, the early election could suit the Reform Party (their rating is high) but not the other parties. In the end, it would still depend on the decision of Alar Karis, and Karis probably does not want to choose the extraordinary election.