Estonia gets its first female PM

Estonia’s two largest parties agree to form a government led by Kaja Kallas, who is set to become the country’s first female prime minister.

Kaja Kallas is set to become Estonia’s first female prime minister after her Reform party agreed a coalition deal with the Centre party of former PM Jüri Ratas.

Parliamentary approval of the new cabinet, in which the two parties will each have seven ministers, is likely to happen this week. Together, Centre and Reform have an eight-seat majority in the 101-seat Riigikogu, Estonia’s unicameral parliament.

A joint statement said the Reform party and the Centre party “will form a government that will continue to effectively resolve the Covid-19 crisis, keep Estonia forward-looking and develop all areas and regions of our country.”

Ms Kallas, 43, is a former MEP who has led Reform since 2018. Her father, Siim Kallas, is a former Estonian prime minister and European Commissioner.

Future-looking political culture

“We will stand up for a future-looking political culture of respectful government that treats all groups of society equally,” said Ms Kallas when presenting her cabinet, which includes a number of women in key posts. Reform’s Keit Pentus-Rosimannus will take over the finance minister’s portfolio while career diplomat Eva-Maria Liimets becomes foreign minister.

Despite winning a parliamentary election in 2019, Reform was unable to agree a coalition deal with the Centre party, which allowed Mr Ratas to form a three-party coalition with the Christian Democrats (Isamaa) and the far-right Conservative People’s party (EKRE).

Mr Ratas was forced to resign on January 13 after a corruption scandal forced a raft of key officials in his coalition to quit.

The move automatically prompted the resignation of his government.

One of the five people suspected of corruption is Kersti Kracht, an adviser to Martin Helme, Estonia’s finance minister and the leader of EKRE. According to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, Kracht promised Teder that she would use her influence to ensure that a loan for a real estate development project would be granted on favourable terms.

Mr Helme has said that neither he nor EKRE had any prior knowledge of influence peddling.

International embarrassment

The coalition had been shaky from the start, however, primarily because of EKRE’s nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric that sat uncomfortably with Estonia’s international image as a modern, liberal country and digital champion.

Its leaders had on several occasions caused great embarrassment on the international stage.

The country’s president, Kersti Kaljulaid, as well as Mr Ratas, were forced to apologise in December 2019 after Mart Helme – Martin Helme’s father – called the then new prime minister of neighbouring Finland, Sanna Marin, “a sales girl.”

“Now we can see that a sales girl has become prime minister and some other street activist and uneducated person has also become a member of the government,” said Mr Helme, who later said that his words had been misinterpreted and were meant “as a compliment”.

Ms Kaljulaid went as far as to tell Postimees, an Estonian newspaper, that she felt Mr Helme was a threat to the country’s security and feared his comments could alienate partners in the region.

In November 2020, spurred on by EKRE, Mr Ratas’s government announced a referendum – set for this spring – on the constitutional definition of marriage. The referendum was set to ask a question about whether marriage should constitutionally be defined as being between “a man and women” – thereby ruling out the possibility of Estonia ever legalising same-sex marriage.

Estonia has recognised same-sex civil partnerships since 2016.

On January 11, Ms Kaljulaid called on parliament to make the referendum binding, meaning that the government would have been forced to resign if it was lost. With a more tolerant and liberal government in place, the referendum is now unlikely to be held.

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