Estonia – New government takes office but cracks in coalition are already visible

On 8 April, more than five week after the parliamentary elections on 1 March, Estonia’s new government passed its vote of confidence in parliament and was formally appointed by the president on the next day. The government continues the cooperation of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas’ Reform Party with the Social Democratic Party; yet the coalition now also includes the ‘Isaama and Res Publica Union’ (IRL). The coalition talks did not proceed without difficulty and some observers doubt that the coalition will hold for the whole length of the legislative term.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (centre left) and Prime Minister Taavi Roivas (centre right) with the new cabinet | © Office of the Estonian President 2015

The elections of 1 March saw not only unexpected vote losses for all major parties but also two previously unrepresented parties enter parliament. Although the Reform Party of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas emerged as the clear winner (finishing 3 seats before its main opponent, the Centre Party), it lost 3 seats which – together with the 4-seat loss of its coalition partner – meant that a third party would need to be included. While both the IRL (the Reform Party’s coalition partner 2007-2014) and the newcomer ‘Free Party’ on their own would have been able to contribute the required number of seats for a majority government, Rõivas soon announced that coalition talks would be held between all four parties. The idea for such a super-sized coalition seems to have originated in talks between Rõivas and president Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Ilves has generally not played a very active role in coalition negotiations and rarely interfered in day-to-day political decision-making, yet now unusually vocally suggested that the new government should have a ‘broad parliamentary basis’. Ilves surely remembered the more than fragile coalition between Reform Party, IRL and Social Democrats which was characterised by continuous disagreements eventually leading to the exclusion of the Social Democrats from the government. On the other hand, the inclusion of the ‘Free Party’ would have enhanced the position of the Reform Party with which Ilves has formed strong bonds while in office vis-a-vis the other coalition partners.

Eventually, the ‘Free Party’ left the coalition negotiations prematurely after its calls for more direct democracy and tax increases found no resonance with the other parties. Yet negotiations between the remaining three parties did not go smoothly either. Similar to the first edition of the three party coalition, the Social Democrats found themselves opposed by the two other parties an many issues and although not all of them have been resolved in the coalition agreement, the fact that their veteran politician Eiki Nestor was made speaker of parliament was one of the key elements in securing their support for the government.

Overall, the government hardly had a smooth start. First disagreements concerning the Cohabitation Act (i.e. legalisation of same-sex marriage passed in the last legislature) surfaced immediately after its inauguration and the abstention of Social Democrat deputy Jevgeni Ossinovski in the cabinet’s vote of confidence caused a further scandal. The ministerial line-up was also subject to some public criticism as the number of women in the government dropped from six to only two. This is particularly relevant as Estonia which was recently named as having one of the biggest gender paygaps in the EU. The coalition agreement, too, only includes little on how to remedy this problem. Therefore, some experts and prominent party representatives have already questioned whether the coalition would be able to survive the full legislative term.

Last, the period of government formation was overshadowed by the illness of Tallinn mayor and Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar. Following a streptococcus infection, Savisaar’s leg needed to be amputated and he remains in a critical care unit. As Savisaar has been party leader since the early 90s, the party is still in a phase of re-orientation. Compared to previous coalition talks – during which Savisaar demanded that his party be included in the government – the Centre Party (which due to its russophile position has no chance of being included in any coalition despite its size) remained largely silent during the coalition talks.

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Cabinet Composition – Rõivas II

roivas 2015 allocation

Prime Minister – Taavi Rõivas, 35, Reform Party
Minister of Foreign Affairs – Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, 39, Reform Party
Minister of Internal Affairs – Hanno Pevkur, 38, Reform Party
Minister of Defense – Sven Mikser, 41, Social Democrats
Minister of Education and Research – Jürgen Ligi, 55, Reform Party
Minister of Justice – Urmas Reinsalu, 39, IRL
Minister of the Environment – Marko Pomerants, 50, IRL
Minister of Culture – Indrek Saar, 42, Social Democrats
Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure – Kristen Michal, 39, Reform Party
Minister of Entrepreneurship – Urve Palo, 44, Social Democrats
Minister of Rural Affairs – Urmas Kruuse, 49, Reform Party
Minister of Finance – Sven Sester, 45, IRL
Minister of Health and Labour – Rannar Vassiljev, 33, Social Democrats
Minister of Social Protection – Margus Tsahkna, 37, IRL
Minister of Public Administration – Arto Aas, 34, Reform Party

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