TALLINN, Estonia — Estonia’s Center party leader Juri Ratas struck a coalition deal with an anti-EU far-right party on Saturday in a controversial bid to block the liberal Reform party that won last month’s election from forming a government.
Having stepped down as prime minister on Thursday, Ratas, who leads the runner-up center-left party, approved the coalition with leaders of the far-right EKRE party and the Isamaa conservatives.
It commands a 56 seat-majority in the 101-seat parliament that will allow it to win a confidence vote.
“We will prove with our actions that the government of the Center Party, the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) and Isamaa stands for the comprehensive development of Estonia,” Ratas, who is now likely to return to office, told reporters in Tallinn on Saturday.
The deal means the far-right is poised to enter government for the first time in the Baltic state that broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991, a move that has stirred public outcry including street protests.
EKRE leader Mart Helme has publicly expressed xenophobic, sexist and homophobic views, and the members of his party have included people convicted of violent crimes and Nazi sympathizers.
News of Ratas’s coalition talks with EKRE sparked a backlash from Estonia’s small Jewish community last month.
“Many statements of this party (EKRE) are antagonistic toward national minorities and aim at dividing society into insiders and outsiders. This can only cause frustration and regret,” the Jewish Community of Estonia said in a statement on March 18.
When Estonia’s chief Rabbi Shmuel Kot was verbally assaulted in central Tallinn last month as he was on his way to synagogue with his children, EKRE’s “Uued Uudised” website called the incident fake news.
There are about 1,950 Jews living in Estonia.
Support for EKRE more than doubled to 19 seats in the country’s election a month ago, buoyed by mostly rural voters hurting after years of tight spending under governments led by establishment parties Reform and Center.
No EU pullout
Under the deal, EKRE leader Helme will head the interior ministry, while his son Martin, who is also the EKRE deputy leader, will serve as finance minister.
The far-right party will also control environment, rural affairs as well as foreign trade and IT.
Ratas will be made prime minister and Center will control four ministries including economics and infrastructure.
The Isamaa conservatives will be in charge of defense, justice, foreign affairs and culture.
The coalition deal also enshrines Estonia’s continued membership of the EU and NATO, the BNS Baltic News Agency reported.
It also includes a tax freeze, pension hikes and a ban on GMO crops but an EKRE proposal to end the public funding of abortions has been dropped, it added.
Bread-and-butter issues including taxation and public spending dominated the March 3 election in the 1.3 million-strong country known for its IT savvy, solid economic growth and the eurozone’s lowest debt-to-GDP ratio.
President Kersti Kaljulaid on Friday tasked liberal party leader Kaja Kallas with forming a new government, a month after her Reform party won an inconclusive election that made it difficult for her to forge a majority coalition.
Kallas, who has launched talks for a minority 44-member coalition with the Social Democrats, told local media on Saturday that she still plans to request a confidence vote on April 15.
But it now appears that the 41-year-old lawyer and staunchly pro-EU former MEP stands little if any chance of becoming Estonia’s first woman prime minister.
Ratas began talks with the EKRE and Isamaa after spurning a coalition offer from Kallas ostensibly over disagreements on taxation.