Reform Party leader tasked to form Estonia’s new government

HELSINKI (AP) — Estonia’s president on Thursday tasked the leader of the main opposition party to form a new government, a day after Prime Minister Juri Ratas and his Cabinet stepped down in the wake of a corruption scandal in Ratas’ ruling Center Party.

Kaja Kallas, chairwoman of the center-right Reform Party that emerged as the winner of the 2019 general election, will have 14 days to put together a new Cabinet, President Kersti Kaljulaid said.

The Baltic country’s head of state urged Kallas to move rapidly as the new government needs to immediately start tackling a worsening COVID-19 situation and the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic.

“Both the Estonian people and I are expecting that Estonia will quickly have an active and competent government, which focuses on handling the pandemic and the economic crisis and on making our lives better,” Kaljulaid said in a statement after meeting with Kallas.

Ratas and his Cabinet resigned Wednesday over a scandal involving a key official at his Center Party suspected of accepting a private donation for the party in exchange for a political favor on a real estate development at the harbor district of the capital, Tallinn.

After the announcement by Ratas, who had led a three-party coalition with his left-leaning Center Party, the nationalist EKRE party and the conservative Fatherland party since April 2019, parties immediately started informal talks on cobbling together a new government.

On Thursday, the Reform Party said it would start official government formation talks with the Center Party. Together, the two parties would muster a comfortable majority at the 101-seat Riigikogu Parliament.

According to Estonian public broadcaster ERR, a new Cabinet could be sworn in on Jan. 25 under Kallas.

The government formation marks the second such attempt for Kallas, 43, in less than two years as she failed to bring about a Reform Party-led coalition after the March 2019 general election.

If successful, she would become the first female prime minister in the history of Estonia, which regained its independence in 1991 amid the collapse of the Soviet Union. A lawyer and former European Parliament lawmaker, she is the daughter of Siim Kallas, one of the Reform Party’s creators and a former prime minister.

Kallas has ruled out including the populist EKRE, the nation’s third-largest party which runs on a nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-European Union agenda, in the new Cabinet, citing considerable differences in values. The pro-business and pro-entrepreneurship Reform Party defines itself on its website as “the leader of the liberal worldview in Estonia.”

Due to EKRE’s strong rhetoric, Ratas’ government was shaky from the start.

The EKRE leaders, Mart Helme and his son Martin Helme, caused Ratas’ government several embarrassments with public statements that were seen as insulting to Estonia’s international allies and which brought the government to the brink of collapse at least twice.

The nation of 1.3 million has been a member of the European Union and NATO since 2004.