Center Party shot itself on the foot and gave the Reform Party an opportunity

Mikk Salu
, ajakirjanik
Minister of Health Tanel Kiik (KE).
Minister of Health Tanel Kiik (KE). Photo: Tairo Lutter
  • The Reform Party will attack the Center over the Estonian-language kindergartens.
  • The Center Party has difficulties in establishing its narrative.
  • President Alar Karis calls for solving the government crisis.

The draft act on pre-primary education was withdrawn from the proceedings of the Riigikogu with the votes of the Center Party and EKRE (the Social Democrats indirectly contributed to it by failing to vote). In plain speech – the bill of transition to fully or largely Estonian-language kindergartens.

This was a tactical mistake on the part of the Center Party, which gave the Reform Party a chance to shift gears. “They just passed the ball to us”, a Reform Party advisor said, using a football term. It is possible that the Center Party simply reacted emotionally. The Reform Party decided to use obstruction against the children’s benefits bill. The Center Party wanted to immediately punish them with some kind of retaliation – the pre-primary education bill was chosen – but shot itself in the foot instead. The leader of the Center faction, Jaanus Karilaid, should have instead just sat down, had a coffee, let his thoughts settle, and only then decide what the pros and cons of this move would be.

But what happened now was that the Reform Party could shift the issue from the children’s benefits to Estonian-language education. Communication-wise, it is certainly more convenient for the Reform Party than obstructing the children’s benefits. Secondly, since the pre-primary education was voted out jointly by the Center Party and EKRE, these two parties can again be lumped together as far as the image goes. This, too, suits the Reform Party well. Thirdly, it again allows recalling the Russia-mindedness of the Center Party and to spice it up with references to the Kremlin and Putin.

The Kremlin says thanks

While the Reform Party ministers were merely critical in a diplomatic style, the members of the parliament were much less restrained in their expressions. This, again, is an old political wisdom. Moreover, since the Reform Party has left the Center Party an opportunity to solve the government crisis with some sort of compromise, the ministers are apparently adopting a deliberate communication strategy of making cautions statements.

The MPs have no such restrictions and they took advantage of the occasion. “EKREKE is born. Center and EKRE voted against government bill calling for transition to only Estonian-language kindergartens. The Socialists did not vote. The Kremlin says thanks,” Reform MP Jürgen Ligi commented in his Facebook posting.

Why and how did the Center Party fall into the trap of the pre-primary education bill? After all, the government, including Centrist ministers, approved the bill in the spring. At the same time, there was a tacit agreement between the Reform and the Center parties, or at least an understanding on part of the Reform Party that the matter would not be dealt with a loud row. Once the issue reaches the Riigikogu Cultural Affairs Committee – where it finally reached – it would not matter if the committee chairman Aadu Must (KE) would “forget” the bill in his drawer and would not hasten to approve it.

The point is not that there was a plan not to adopt the bill at all, but the Reform Party would have agreed to a more delicate approach. So that the bill could be tuned in the Riigikogu and made easier for the Center Party to swallow. Indeed, there are aspects of the draft which need to be amended and clarified. It is not that Jüri Ratas (KE), Jaanus Karilaid or other well-known Centrists do not want the Estonian-language kindergarten, but the political reality says that the Center Party has its “Russian wing”, politicians and voters who are more sensitive in this matter. The Reform Party perceives the political reality, it does not want to place the coalition partner in a difficult position, but to give an opportunity to handle it more smoothly and to give the draft a form more acceptable for the Center Party.

Now when the Center Party itself rejected the pre-primary education bill with a loud quarrel, there is no need to suppress criticism and the Kremlin card can be conveniently used against the coalition partner. Especially if the Centrists have to explain their move with funny arguments. “I had not read the draft properly,” said Minister of Health Tanel Kiik (KE), for example.

As a remark, EKRE's votes against the pre-primary education bill come from a different angle and are related to Article 6 and Subsection 3 of the bill. It states that the Estonian language is used in kindergartens “to the extent of at least 50 percent”. When the draft was discussed in the Cultural Affairs Committee for the first time in April, Helle-Moonika Helme raised the issue by asking how to interpret “at least 50 percent in Estonian”? If we are dealing with a 100-percent Estonian-language kindergarten, does the “at least 50 percent Estonian-language” article of the law open an opportunity to reduce the share of the Estonian language? Both Minister of Education Liina Kersna (RE) and the ministry officials assured that it concerned only Russian-language kindergartens, and no one in Estonian-language kindergartens will reduce the share of the Estonian language to "at least 50 percent”.

Wording remained the same

Kersna also promised that the relevant section would be reworded so that there would be no doubt about the interpretation mentioned by Helme. When the bill was discussed by the committee for the second time a month later, EKRE was disappointed to discover that the wording had still not been changed, and they used it as a reason to vote against the bill. As was already mentioned, in terms of political communication, this gave the Reform Party an opportunity to stigmatize both the Center Party and EKRE.

The Reform Party is not infallible, but 25 years in Estonian politics have shown that they are professionals. On average, more professional than other parties, and if you make a mistake or a false move, the Reform Party will take advantage of it. It is unlikely that the Reform Party leaders believe that Jüri Ratas is promoting the Kremlin's policies or that Jaak Valge (EKRE), who handled the draft on behalf of EKRE in the Cultural Affairs Committee, do not really want the Estonian-language kindergarten. But there is also a level of political tactics in the handling of matters. Especially with controversial laws, it is never about simply being in favor or against, but also about the narrative one uses to wrap the position in. The Center Party’s move in the case of the Estonian-language kindergartens created a new opportunity for the Reform Party, which they took advantage of.

The political cycle is rapid in times of crisis. In the beginning of the week, the Social Democrats came under fire for their creativity regarding the signatures of the children’s benefits bill. Now is the Center Party’s turn to suffer a few days of barrage for slowing down the Estonian-language kindergartens. But it doesn't last indefinitely. New events are coming up and previous blunders will be pushed to the background. The dispute over the increase in children’s benefits has not gone anywhere. Yesterday, the Social Affairs Committee sent the bill to the Riigikogu. For the first time during this crisis, President Alar Karis also spoke out. Both Kaja Kallas (RE) and Jüri Ratas hinted at some different coalitions. The coalition council should meet on Monday, a place where Kallas and Ratas will meet face to face over a long time. This is the next official point where a solution to the government crisis can be found.

Riigikogu to debate almost 1,200 amendment proposals

The Social Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu decided on Thursday to vote on the amendment proposals submitted to the children’s benefits bill by the Reform Party and the Social Democrats as two separate packages and to refer them to the parliament for debates.

Altogether some 1,200 amendment proposals will be submitted to the parliament, which, according to Reform Party member Erkki Keldo will paralyze the parliament’s work.

“This committee was a huge farce,” Keldo barked when leaving the sitting. He said that the committee had ignored the laws and combined the amendment proposals.

Although the Social Affairs Committee voted the amendment proposals in packages, they will be debated individually by the parliament. According to Keldo, it only shows that the Center Party’s desire was to demonstrate obstruction. They want to make it clear that the Reform Party’s amendment proposals have paralyzed the work of the Riigikogu.

“We in the Reform Party wanted to discuss the amendments seriously with the Committee,” he said. In Keldo’s opinion, the president would not promulgate the children’s benefits act because the committee sitting had breached the law.

The committee chairperson Siret Kotka (KE) said that the committee had jointly decided to vote the amendments in packages, since all proposals would have the same voting results. “It is difficult to predict how long the Riigikogu will process them. The ball is in the Reform Party’s court” Kotka said. “At least three parties are willing to discuss them even at the cost of night sittings,” she added.

The method used by the Social Affairs Committee headed by Kotka is traditional in case of obstructions, she said.