Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Estonia's New Coalition Government

After weeks of negotiations, an agreement on a new coalition government in Estonia was today finally reached. Thus, for the next four years, Estonia will be ruled by a government of Reformists, the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL), and the Social Democrats. That is, if the coalition partners will be able to see eye to eye in the long run.

Until now, the track record for Estonian governments has for most part been less than a year in office. Still, the 4 March election results proved an exception from this rule, as the Prime Minister, Andrus Ansip, retained support for staying in office for the first time since Estonia regained independence in 1991. Consequently, the main goal of coalition talks seems to have been to maintain the political stability that the elections formed a basis for.

Still, as previously reported, next to everything seemed up for grabs after the 4 March parliamentary elections. The only clear thing was that Prime Minister Ansip's Reform Party would take the lead in government formation talks. Who the other government coalition partners would be was however unclear. How great an importance that in the end would be given to a broader and more stable government was the great question in Tallinn. Speculations on a grand coalition have been frequent and for long there were many indications in this direction. One obvious result of the coalition now formed is that the Reformists have left out both their old coalition partners in the previous government, namely the Centre Party and the People's Union.

That Edgar Savisaar's Centre Party would not form part of a new government came as no surprise, as Reformists and Centrists had been the main contenders for power during the election campaign. However, also the Estonian People's Union was left out, which may be attributed to its losing almost half its votes in the elections.

Still, this was not a foregone conclusion as also the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL), which forms part of the new government coalition, suffered a similar fate. The conservative IRL was previously the biggest opposition party in parliament - the Riigikogu - but what perhaps was decisive for including the IRL was that its election loss was expected in contrast to that of the People's Union. It was also quite clear at an early stage that Reformist coalition-builder Ansip would opt for including the IRL in the new government.

One potential partner that particpated in the race for government power was the Green Party, which entered parliament for the first time by the elections. That this did not become the case was probably due to the same reasons motivating its inclusion: It might have proven quite gullible for the other coalition parties once in government. Consequently, Green Party leader Marek Strandberg characterised the reasons for leaving coalition talks thus: "The current situation reminds us of a school excursion to the Tallinn meat factory, after which the temptation to test the sausage considerably diminishes."

As the Green Party abandoned coalition talks, Prime Minister Ansip was left to broker a deal with the Social Democrats. In the end, it turned out that the Reformists and the IRL would have to pay a high price for winning over the Social Democrats. All in all, the coalition package will be a staggering 47 billion kroons - the equivalent of 3 billion euros - for covering the reforms of the three government partners. Such state expenditures will only add to Estonia's problems of an already precariously overheated economy.

The costly coalition deal has led to massive critique from Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar. The Centrists themselves were heavily criticised during the election campaign for making irresponsible and populist promises of expensive reforms that might topple the Estonian economy. For the Centrists, this might have proven a decisive factor for losing the elections. Thus, Savisaar now argues that "Ansip has chosen the road to Golgotha for the new government." This might well be true, but such a statement also raises the question whether the Centre Party may reach resurrection in the next elections. It is true that Savisaar will only be 61 years old in 2011, but considering his health problems, he might well exit the political stage much earlier. Thus, rumours of his political immortality may be greatly exaggerated. Without Savisaar's dominant and all-exclusive leadership of the Centrists, the party would probably fall apart within weeks, as there is no clear successor, and nobody could shoulder Savisaar's role of constant fighter. Perhaps, there is no wonder that his wife, Vilja Savisaar, takes an increasingly active part in the party's top-level decision-making.

Still, regardless of Savisaar's future, the Centre Party is on the retreat. The Estonian people decisively opted for political stability and continued reform and modernisation to fully integrate with the European Union. Here, the Centrists have little to offer. The great challenge now for the new government is to realise the people's hopes. Regrettably, the costly coalition deal fares ill for the new government's prospects to fulfill the hopes for the brighter future the Estonians so much desire.

Update: Mart Laar on Thursday declared that he will himself not seek inclusion in the new Estonian cabinet. Instead, he will concentrate on developing the new Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) to seek leadership of the unified party. Stepping aside of government duties also gives Laar the opportunity to lead IRL in the 2011 elections without the political burden a cabinet post might have involved.

A surprise in the new cabinet is the inclusion of Jüri Pihl as Minister of the Interior. Pihl has previously headed the Estonian security police (KAPO), and also been Prosecutor General. Until now, Pihl has been unpolitical, but will now represent the Social Democrats in cabinet, which further strengthens the impression of a coming SDE stronghold on Estonian politics. Pihl is widely believed to have close relations with Western structures and has also been close to Aleksander Einseln, former Commander in Chief of the Estonian Armed Forces.


Toivo Ellakvere said...

"As the Green Party abandoned coalition talks, Prime Minister Ansip was left to broker a deal with the Social Democrats."

One correction. Greens didnt abandon, reform party through greens out of the door quite roughly.

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Toivo,

Thank you for this addtional piece of information! The big question now, I guess, is how long the government will keep together. With Mart Laar on the side - not becoming foreign minister - and Reformist-inclined IRL-representatives in the cabinet, risking internal struggles between IRL in cabinet and parliament, not to mention all the conflicting economic interests, it is really hard to see that this government would be very long-lived. I also imagine that the SDP might get a strong position, as they are much more united this time, than they were the last time they were in government.