TALLINN - Hopes for the new right-wing government perished last week as the Reform Party walked away from two ideological partners and invited two centrist parties to coalition talks.
Reform Party Chairman Andrus Ansip, who received a mandate to begin talks from President Arnold Ruutel on March 31, said he hoped to conclude negotiations with the Center Party and the People's Union, usually described as centrist or left-of-center forces, this week.
Already dubbed the 'garlic coalition' by the local media because of last week's meeting in a Tallinn garlic restaurant, the three parties began talks on April 4.
After the first meeting, Center Party Chairman Edgar Savisaar said the parties did their homework and managed to analyze each other's principal positions.
"We have advanced quite well for the first day," Savisaar was quoted by his press office as saying.
Savisaar, along with Ansip and People's Union Chairman Villu Reiljan, remained tight-lipped about actual agreements that were reached during the first two meetings. However, judging from the principal positions taken by the three parties, a compromise on tax and pension policies will have to be hammered out.
"We would also like the [new] Cabinet to focus on the development of the country, instead of being a mere 'Christmas peace' government," said Ansip. He added that his party, which had originally flirted with the idea of a right-wing bloc with Res Publica and Pro Patria Union, would like to keep the tax and social reforms that have been carried out since 2003.
While the Reform Party supports a further decrease in the income-tax rate, from the already achieved 24 to 20 percent, the Centrists are advocates of a progressive income tax that would impose a 33-percent tax on monthly income over 1,600 euros.
The People's Union, in the meantime, would like to increase the tax-free minimum and introduce extra tax deductions for families with two or more children. The Centrists also want to raise pensions.
The three parties have 53 votes in Parliament now that MP Olev Laanjarv has returned to the Center Party faction from the Social Liberals' group.
The government crisis in Estonia emerged three weeks ago when the Reformists and the People's Union, minor partners in the three-party coalition led by Prime Minister Juhan Parts, who is also chairman of Res Publica, supported the no-confidence vote against the justice minister over a reportedly antidemocratic corruption prevention plan.
Analysts had a positive spin on the myriad of political interests that would clash should the "garlic coalition" go through.
Faktum pollster Juhan Kivirahk said that, in his opinion, Estonia has only benefited from the local parties' poor ability to form a single-party government.
"If we consider politics' main goal to be finding a compromise that would satisfy as many people as possible, the solutions created in coalition agreements seem much more reasonable than those present in one or the other party's own program," said Kivirahk.
"I think that reforms derived purely from only right- or left-wing ideologies would not do Estonia good now," he added.
Kivirahk suggested that the three parties could elegantly answer the tax conundrum by not changing a thing in the currently valid legislation. "Leaving the taxes unchanged is also a decision, and apparently at this point it would be the best solution for the expectations and needs of the society," he said.
Meanwhile, the Reform Party's council, which met April 1 's 2 in southern Estonia, updated the party's positions on environmental issues but opted to keep its tax policy the same. Rain Rosimannus, chairman of the council, said the party wanted to keep the parental allowance as is and would like to carry on with tax reform.
Introduced in 2004, the parental allowance system provides one parent with his or her average monthly income for 11 months, during which the parent can stay at home. The allowance is widely regarded as necessary to improve the country's catastrophic demographic situation, and has already contributed to an increase in the number of births last year. In 2004, over 22,000 people received the parental compensation, which cost the government nearly 27 million euros.
The other two key positions for the leading coalition partner are a balanced budget, which is necessary for the switch to the euro in 2007, and a continuation of the country's foreign and security policy, which means the Reformists want to prolong the Estonian peacekeepers' mission to Iraq at least until Christmas.
Not all potential partners feel the same. On April 5 the Estonian parliament rejected a Center Party-sponsored bill to bring the troops home on June 20. The bill was rejected by 51 votes from Res Publica, the Reform Party, People's Union, Pro Patria and the Social Liberals group.
Still, the much-touted right-wing alliance between Res Publica, the Reform Party and the Pro Patria Union did not materialize since Res Publica's positions were reportedly too rigid and the Pro Patria Union was tepid to the idea.
Parts dismissed accusations that his party was inflexible, saying it accepted Ansip as the next prime minister. However, his words, spoken March 31, were too late, as hours later Ansip offered to discuss forming a coalition with Savisaar and Reiljan.
"We are all grown-ups. If we put the slogans away in our pockets we can reach a compromise," said Parts. He added that the new government would have to face certain monetary political conditions if it continues with the country's previous policy of introducing the euro in two years.
According to sociologist Kivirahk, Res Publica's ultra-ambitious attitude and lack of parliamentary experience has become fatal and has brought its rating to the bottom. "The events of the last several weeks show that Res Publica thinks it is better to participate in the next general elections as an opposition party," said Kivirahk, adding that, in his opinion, the coalition of the Reformists, the Centrists and the People's Union will be created.
"However, if Ansip fails [to create a coalition], Res Publica might take the place of the Reform Party [in forming the new power bloc]," he said.