Statements about the new Finnish Prime Minister by Estonia's far-right party leader and government minister led to a brief crisis within the ruling coalition and upset diplomatic relations with Finland. Every time the Estonian far-right initiates a scandal, it demonstrates the power it holds over the other governing parties but also hurts cooperation with neighbouring countries.
On Saturday, the Estonian daily Postimees ran a headline stating “Lack of scandals hurts EKRE (…)”. On Sunday, the far-right party’s leader and Estonia’s Interior Minister Mart Helme went on a rant on his weekly talk show, insulting Finland’s newly appointed prime minister, Sanna Marin. Referencing Lenin, he said that Marin is an example of a “salesgirl becoming PM” and that the new government, led by the Finnish Social Democratic Party, represents “the historical revenge of the Reds on the Whites” and is “now desperately trying to liquidate Finland, making it a Euro-province.”
A brief crisis
This statement made the news on both sides of the Gulf of Finland and reached even the front page of the Financial Times. Marin responded indirectly on Twitter, writing: “I’m extremely proud of Finland. Here the child of a poor family can educate themselves highly and reach many goals in life. A cashier can become Prime Minister, for instance. Finland would not survive without its workers.”
Helme’s statement was condemned equally diplomatically by members of the Finns Party, EKRE’s equivalent across the gulf, with MP Riika Purra tweeting: “All politicians and decisionmakers should have a working career behind them. It’s bizarre if they don’t!”
In Estonia, Helme’s statements led to a brief crisis that threatened to end the coalition government in which EKRE is a junior partner. The Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid told Postimees that she considers the current government a “threat to national security”.
Leaders of the other governing parties condemned Helme’s statement and in a walk-and-talk interview to the news site Delfi, Helme said that he would never apologise and that “it is very likely that this government will fall”. A few hours later, Helme had semi-apologised and the government continues to serve.
On the surface, this scandal resembles a thousand others that the Estonian public has had to suffer through over the past eight months. A far-right politician says something wildly offensive, the media goes wild, pundits speculate about the future of the government, experts give basic civics lessons to the public, everyone condemns the statement, the PM apologises on their coalition partners behalf, and the government continues its business as usual. Yet, this one seems to have hit a nerve even in Estonia’s already numbed ecosystem.
For many pundits, the problem is that EKRE’s statements increasingly have consequences for Estonia’s foreign policy. Recently, Mart Helme told the Finnish newspaper Iltalehti that the Estonian government was “working on a plan B” in case the country could no longer rely on NATO’s Article 5 protection. That statement, too, was roundly condemned by Helme’s coalition partners, including by the minister of defence, Jüri Luik, who pointedly noted that “in Estonia, it is not the job of the Interior Minister to plan our national defence strategy. Those whose job it is, know that our policy is to strengthen NATO, not to sow doubts in the hearts of our friends and enemies.”
For many critics, including the president, this is the real context of Helme’s emotional outbursts: they are starting to hurt Estonia’s relations with neighbouring countries and spending its international political capital with longstanding allies at a time when increasing global turmoil demands precisely the opposite.
The situation is particularly frustrating for the government because the PM’s Centre Party has been trying hard for years to distance itself from its complicated past. As an opposition party in the 2000s, the party campaigned against Estonia’s accession to the EU and signed a cooperation agreement with United Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s party.
When the Centre Party first came to power in 2016, its leaders repeatedly assured that it would hold to the cross-party consensus on Estonia’s foreign policy. Now that it has had to clean up EKRE’s international mess for a second time, this has become a far less convincing claim.
For EKRE, however, such scandals are both ideologically principled and strategically sensible. The party has been built by local Eurosceptics, and Helme’s comments about a female, social-democratic PM are entirely consistent with its far-right, sexist views.
In a lecture given to the far-right Traditional Britain Group in October, finance minister Martin Helme (Mart Helme’s son) described the party’s political strategy as “controlling the agenda in a classical James Bond sort of way: provocation, escalation, improvisation. you say something, everyone starts running around and scream, we don’t apologise, the scandal runs for about a week or so. And once the dust settles, what we’ve achieved is that we’ve broadened the political debate, the narrative.”
It’s unclear if this strategy is one that will win EKRE votes. In latest polls, EKRE’s ratings have been inching downwards for several months, hovering around 14 per cent (compared to 17,8 per cent they won in the elections in March). EKRE has by far the largest number of people – 58 per cent of those polled – who would never consider voting for them.
It is, however, a politically successful strategy. Every time EKRE initiates a scandal, it demonstrates the power it holds over the other governing parties, wins publicity for its positions in the media, and normalises behaviour previously considered beyond the pale.
Helme’s apology for his latest fluke was a classical non-apology: he said his words had been misconstrued by the media and that he had “actually interpreted them as a commendation”. He did not personally send an apology to the Finnish PM, instead, Estonia’s PM Jüri Ratas sent it on his behalf.
It is hardly surprising that many commentators have referred to Ratas as a “PM in Helme’s government” and for all the rhetoric of the broad-based coalition’s attempts at “building social cohesion”, the more salient question is how many social groups is Ratas willing to alienate in the name of staying in power. As political scientist Cas Mudde has pointedly argued: the far-right today remains in power not because it holds majority support, but because mainstream parties decide to work with and normalise them. The responsibility for the damage in this latest Fenno-Ugric scandal is shared equally between Helme and PM Ratas.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.