Kallas remains clear favourite to secure re-election as Estonian PM

Kallas remains clear favourite to secure re-election as Estonian PM
Support for Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has been boosted by her high-profile since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, visibility that has made her talked about as a potential candidate for the next head of Nato. / bne IntelliNews
By Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius March 1, 2023

All bets are off on who is most likely to lead the next Estonian government: Kaja Kallas, the current prime minister and chairwoman of the liberal Reform party, is the runaway favourite to be re-elected this weekend.

Tonis Saarts, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at Tallinn University’s School of Governance, Law and Society (SOGOLAS), told bne IntelliNews that the re-election of Kallas is “very probable”.

Support for Kallas has been boosted by her high-profile since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, visibility that has made her talked about as a potential candidate for the next head of Nato.

“Although, as the prime minister, she was neither popular nor very skillful in managing the various domestic crises, like energy, economy and COVID-19 just a year ago, she became very quickly a very popular politician because of the dramatically changing geopolitical context and the war. A bit like Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands War. However, the context was pretty different,” the well-known Estonian analyst emphasises.

Yet he cautions that other outcomes remain possible. “But we also have to be ready either for Martin Helme (chairman of the far-right EKRE party) or Juri Ratas (chairman of the Centre party) governments,” Saarts says.

Since last summer, following the collapse of the Centre-Reform coalition, the country’s ruling coalition consists of Reform, the centre-left SDE and the right-leaning Isamaa. The dismissal of the Centre party followed weeks of political divisions, including a vote on an education bill in which Centre voted against the government and with the EKRE opposition instead.

After this weekend’s election, Kallas might be able to continue in power either with a variant of the current coalition, perhaps with the addition of the currently non-parliamentary Estonia 200 party, or, less likely, a new coalition with the Centre party. Alternatively, EKRE might be able to form a government with Centre and Ismaa. All potential coalitions would continue the country’s strong backing for Ukraine in its defence against Russian aggression.

Even Andrei Korobeinik, a member of the Centre fraction in the parliament, puts the probability of Kallas’ re-election at 60%.

“She is a good position to continue as prime minister. If Reform almost certainly wins the elections, Kaja Kallas will get the nomination. However, she may fail to form a coalition, just like it happened four years ago. As the prime minister, Kaja Kallas was successful in foreign policy and it brought some political dividends within the country; however, domestic efforts were less fruitful, that is the reason why Estonia was strongly hit by the current [cost of living] crisis,” Korobeinik told bne IntelliNews.

Like four years ago, the most probable coalition is between the Central and Reform parties, he predicts.

Speaking to bne IntelliNews, Raimond Kaljulaid, an unaffiliated Estonian MP, cautioned that although Kallas has been quite visible on the international arena regarding the war in Ukraine, visibility and influence are not always the same.

“So it is a bit too early to say what the real achievements will be like. If she continues, the key moment will be the Vilnius Nato summit [this summer]. That’s when we will see what the tangible results of diplomacy are for Estonia, the Baltic states, Nordic countries and the alliance as a whole,” he says.

While Reform’s curve of support has moved in a downward direction over the past two weeks, Kallas has not seen a concomitant drop in support. In fact, she has seen a recent rise, according to a recent survey polling of respondents on who the next prime minister of Estonia should be.

A total of 38.3% of respondents said they would like to see Kallas returning as premier after the elections on March 5. This represented a rise in support of one percentage point on the previous week's Kantar Emor poll on the same topic; two weeks ago, Kallas polled at 36.7 percent.

In second place is former prime minister, Centre Party leader and current Riigikogu speaker Juri Ratas, who polled at 19.5%. Ratas' rating has, however, fallen over the past two weeks, from 21.3%, according to Kantar Emor. At the same time, he outstrips his party in terms of support; Centre is in third place overall, behind the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE).

EKRE's leader, Martin Helme, was the third-most popular choice as next prime minister, though he, too, has seen a fall in support, to 12%, according to the latest Kantar Emor poll. A fortnight ago, Helme polled at 15.6%, while a week ago his rating stood at 13.6%.