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Scandal Sinks Estonian Prime Minister and His Far-Right Allies

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 1/13/2021 Ott Ummelas and Aaron Eglitis
Jüri Ratas looking at the camera: Juri Ratas © Photographer: OLIVIER HOSLET/AFP Juri Ratas

(Bloomberg) -- Estonia’s prime minister quit over a corruption probe into his party, paving the way for the opposition to build a new coalition that shuts out the current government’s far-right allies.

Juri Ratas announced his resignation from the helm of the European Union and euro-area country at about 3 a.m. in Tallinn -- hours after prosecutors said his Centre Party was suspected of influence-peddling.

His exit marks the end of a rocky two years in power. One of Centre’s junior partners, EKRE, triggered frequent scandals -- repeatedly making racist and homophobic comments as well as insulting Finland’s prime minister and questioning Joe Biden’s victory in November’s U.S. presidential election.

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“I think many people are finally simply relieved that an exit was found for this coalition,” Vello Andres Pettai, a professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Tartu, said by email. “All eyes will now be on the opposition Reform Party.”

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid wasted no time in asking business friendly Reform to form a government, saying Estonia’s credibility must be “rebuilt in the eyes of our allies and partners” and a new administration installed to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic damage it’s wreaking.

“We have no time for delays,” she said. “The government crisis must be solved quickly.”

The “most feasible option” is for a more traditional alliance with the Isamaa and Social Democrat parties, according to Martin Molder, a researcher at Tartu University’s Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies. The pair broke with Reform in 2016, inviting Centre into government after it promised to clean up its image following a string of scandals.

Ratas, who’s held his position since 2016 and who’ll remain for now in a caretaker capacity, said he stepped down to allow an “undisturbed” investigation. He said he hasn’t made “any malicious or deliberately wrong decisions,” and that he’s been given assurances by prosecutors and the police that he’s not under investigation.

Five individuals are suspects in the case, including the Centre Party’s secretary general and a businessman who’s linked to the Porto Franco real-estate project and alleged to have offered political donations in exchange for favorable decisions, according to a statement from prosecutors and police late Tuesday.

An adviser to Finance Minister Martin Helme, who heads EKRE, is also suspected of accepting a bribe for helping the businessman get more favorable terms on a 39 million-euro ($48 million) government loan in July.

The government’s collapse looks set to derail a push by EKRE to enshrine the definition of marriage in the constitution as between a man and a woman.

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