Opinion: President Kersti Kaljulaid as the new opposition

President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid is effectively the country’s political opposition, as her recent returning of the pensions reform bill to the Riigikogu demonstrates. While the two opposition parties seem to have been relatively quiet in recent months, this may just be the option needed to maintain any type of opposition.

A party this weekend at Rakvere Theater, celebrating its 80th anniversary, brought a very varied program to the stage. One of the highlights to my mind was opposition Social Democratic Party leader Indrek Saar, in full 70s gear as part of an Abba tribute (just the one song – translated verbatim into Estonian as “Raha, raha, raha”). He, along with his actor wife Ülle Lichtfeld, did come across as a class pairing, I have to say. I’m not sure who the other two people who made up the tribute were, but wasn’t that the case with the real Abba, there were two stars and two for ballast? Or was that the Beatles? Regardless, the SDE leader’s lithe footwork could find a congruous metaphor in politics: The shimmying being elaborated by the president, Kersti Kaljulaid.

Formidable lineup of state ‘opposition’ leaders

A recent social media video doing told an interesting story. Around a dozen state officials and other notables were assembled, in a (state) information system authority clip highlighting the security importance of having a long computer password.

This was significant, not so much due to what the speakers were saying, but the fact they were saying it, who they were, and what they represented. They were in short almost a who’s who of the de facto opposition – justice chancellor Ülle Mädise, Secretary of State Taimar Peterkop, Police chief Elmar Vaher, and more; if you were to go back and sift through all the state officials and others in prominent positions to have played the foil for the coalition government since last spring, it would bear a curious resemblance to this list. Even ERR (Urmas Vaino) made it on the list.

Opposition parties quite quiet

But what about the two political parties who actually are out of office, Reform and the Social Democratic Party? Don’t they make up the opposition? Well, not really. In fact Estonia has been without an opposition in the conventional sense for the last 10 months. Having won the largest number of seats at the March general election, the Reform Party sat back and, have done, almost nothing.

The Social Democrats – well they have only 10 Riigikogu members, having picked up another Kaljulaid – Raimond – late last year, but this party tends to pick its battles selectively, perhaps wisely. Overturning the revised pharmacy bill just before Christmas is one example, though I can’t help thinking there was a strong element of pantomime there too. The bill was not the one which had been in the pipeline for so long and was in fact much the opposite of that. Margus Linnamäe is behind you.

Enter the president

This brings us to one important qualification – there’s a huge element of pragmatism at play. Reform, a party riven with faction practically as much as Center, may find an era of silence works better in this case than continually harrying. This approach wouldn’t work in the U.K., for instance, where the opposition Labour Party may have talked themselves to electoral meltdown, but they had to be seen to be doing something. It’s extremely effective here, however, and more to the point, the done thing.

Perhaps the real reason for the two parties’ seeming inaction is that a whole lot more is going on behind the scenes, and not only that. The video example earlier didn’t feature Kersti Kaljulaid, but it was shared on her social media page. She is the seal of the real opposition, presiding over everything, in every sense. Yes, she is the opposition leader.

There are some examples of how this has played out over the past ten months. The current Center, EKRE, Isamaa coalition was barely born when she famously chose to don a sweatshirt emblazoned with the slogan “Sõna on vaba” – literally “the word is free”; less gratingly, “speech is free”, and also, I believe, a play on an earlier EKRE slogan.

A calendar of clashes

The first blow was delivered as the new cabinet was swearing itself in, and heightened by the very serious matter of one of them, IT and foreign trade minister Marti Kuusik, standing accused of domestic violence. The president actually left the chamber in a not-so-symbolic gesture (Kuusik lasted a day in office).

Later, there was interior minister Mart Helme’s attempt to overrule police chief Elmar Vaher (in the video as noted); the president came down firmly both on his side and that of long-serving civil servant Illar Lemetti, a casualty in a controversy(ies) involving then-rural affairs minister Mart Järvik.

Through the second half of 2019 president Kaljulaid had plenty of mud thrown her way by Mart Helme. Again, perhaps the best response is a dignified silence, which happened, in the form of not only Helme but even prime minister Jüri Ratas declining to attend one of the highlights of the social calendar – the Rose Garden reception marking restoration of independence day in late August – and the entire government knocking back the traditional end-of-year Kadriorg coffee morning just before Christmas.

The two sides convened later, last month, and in true Estonian fashion were able to bury the hatchet. However, this was followed by another very Estonian phenomenon, that of a major impasse of the day pivoting on, let’s say, not a topic likely to get one’s juices flowing – in this case, pensions reform, with the president sending back to the Riigikogu, as within her constitutional role, the government’s chequered-storied pensions reform bill, which makes employee contributions optional rather than mandatory for most wage earners.

Champion of those causes the coalition certainly is not

Not really a topic of grand-scale ideas, but then again, the two opposition parties are out of any ideas, grand or otherwise. So the president stepped into the void and, being a different person and unencumbered with trappings of political parties and their histories, is able to do so nimbly and, so far as it has gone so far, quite effectively, albeit against a coalition which sometimes resembles so many bears grouchy from having hibernation interrupted by the mild winter.

You could almost wonder whether this was why she was chosen in the first place – hand-picked and brought back from Luxembourg where she had been working as Estonia’ representative at the European Court of Auditors for several years. I understand she was also one of the authors of the current pensions system, so small wonder she took a stance on it.

President Kaljulaid also provides the role as a surrogate opposition on other topics which are natural, international battlegrounds but which Reform and the Social Democrats might not have a united line on; climate change – she talks a lot about it, recently visited Antarctica, ostensibly to celebrate the 200th anniversary of that continent’s first sighting (by an Estonian Baltic-German) but in any case using the opportunity to keep things current within the Greta Thunberg zeitgeist.

It would be fair to say that Greta Thunberg is not high up on the list of favorite people among coalition ministers, MPs and their supporters; same with the issues of gender equality, LGBT+ rights and other social questions – all of which the president has at times advocated for from a stance, from the coalition’s perspective (Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik notwithstanding) out of left field.

She can also turn her hand just as adroitly to foreign policy, and took a lead role in the weekend’s Munich Security Conference, though as a head of state, this is to be expected, and with a strong precedent set by the last incumbent, former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

Nothing unconstitutional

Is she overstepping her constitutional role, at least at home if not away? I don’t think so, but definitely walks the line. I have read through much of the constitution and can’t see anything which suggests she has, but then again I’m not a lawyer. Speaking of which, the president also famously has been without a fixed legal team for at least a couple of years, seeking to get counsel from the private sector instead. Again, this ties in with her apparent approach of being “agile”.

Of course, so much for the letter of the law, there is also the spirit of the law, which is harder to pin down and so leaves more room for doubt over the president’s actions, but in general it seems to be a case of, if it’s not expressly forbidden in the constitution, it’s ok. The point is, she hasn’t left the legal aspect fallow; these are battlegrounds for lawyers, not the rest of us.

Ultimately, this is again a very Estonian way of doing things. One of the president’s predecessors, Lennart Meri, was quite happy to opine, cajole, recommend, make fun, and do anything where needed if it served building up a viable state; maybe she is doing the same in a country which is still pretty young. The approach has led to some odd episodes; the apparent standoff, later resolved, with, of all people, the head of the Lutheran church in Estonia is one such case, but it might just be working yet.

An ever-evolving role

Maybe the presidential role is still evolving, and this is part of that process. And maybe it’s opposition-by-stealth on the part of the two parties out of office; it wouldn’t be the first time, after all – they’ve tried the “grass roots”  level with one or two movements, Kõigi Eesti etc., which at the very least play into the opposition parties’ hands and to which said parties leaders gave their nod of approval to, in attending large-scale events organized by the same movements.

In the meantime, well what could be the Abba theme song of all this pageantry? Well it depends how things pan out. It could be “Fernando” if it fails, “the Winner Takes it All” at the opposite pole, or perhaps even “I’m a Marionette”.

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