Nationalist party enters Estonia's government


COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — The father-and-son leaders of a divisive anti-immigrant party were sworn in Monday as Estonia’s interior and finance minister.

Prime Minister Juri Ratas presented his 15-member coalition Cabinet on Monday at the 101-seat Riigikogu assembly located in the picturesque Old Town of Estonia’s capital, Tallinn.

Earlier this month, Ratas, leader of the left-leaning Center Party, clinched a surprise deal with the nationalist and euroskeptic Estonian Conservative People’s Party, or EKRE, as well as with the conservative Fatherland, to create a majority coalition.

EKRE’s Mart Helme, 69, was appointed interior minister in the Cabinet, while his son Martin, 43, becomes finance minister.

EKRE’s strong rhetoric has divided Estonia ever since the party first entered parliament in 2015. The party has advocated abolishing the law recognizing same-sex civil unions, demanded changes to the country’s abortion law and fiercely opposed European Union quotas for taking in asylum-seekers.

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It emerged from the election with 17.8% of votes, becoming Estonia’s third-largest party.

The three parties will have five ministerial posts each in the government. Fatherland’s Urmas Reinsalu became new foreign minister and Juri Luik from the same party continues as defense minister — a key post in this small Baltic nation that neighbors Russia.

The fact that EKRE is entering a governing coalition has caused fierce debates nationwide, with some Estonians blaming it for polarizing society.

In a curious detail, President Kersti Kaljulaid was following the new Cabinet’s inauguration ceremonies in the parliament sporting a sweater inscribed with the Estonian words “Sona on vaba,” or “Speech is free.”

That is seen as a statement on the importance of freedom of speech from the head of state following weeks of public controversy on EKRE, which has accused Estonian media of biased reporting on the party’s affairs.

In early April, Peeter Helme – nephew of Mart Helme – was appointed the new editor-in-chief of Estonia’s oldest and largest newspaper Postimees. Peeter Helme has worked with the paper earlier.

EKRE claims to defend the interests of ethnic Estonians in the former Soviet republic where some 25% of the 1.3 million inhabitants are ethnic Russians, who have traditionally opted to vote for the Center Party.

Mart Helme told an Estonian radio channel Sunday that it was “wishful thinking” that the party would tone down its strong rhetoric after assuming government power.

A total of five parties are represented in parliament, including the Reform Party that was the biggest party after the March 3 election. Its leader, Kaja Kallas, was first tasked to form a government, but she failed to get sufficient support.

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Jari Tanner reported from Helsinki.

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