Estonia’s PM Sees Global Populism Resilient Even After Trump

Donald J. Trump’s exit from the White House is unlikely to kill off the populism gripping many Western nations, according to a European Union member that’s just ended a stint with a far-right party in government.

Estonia formed a new administration last month, shutting out a junior partner from the previous coalition that had urged maintaining the country’s predominantly white population, railed against gays and offended foreign dignitaries from Helsinki to Washington.

While there are signs of nationalists wobbling elsewhere in the region -- Slovenia’s government faces a no-confidence vote next week -- leaders in Hungary and Poland show no signs of backing down in their years-long scrap with the EU over democratic values. What’s more, rising inequality in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic risks reigniting the forces that fueled everything from Trump to Brexit.

Estonia’s PM Sees Global Populism Resilient Even After Trump

“The question is: does this trend end now, when we have a new administration in the U.S. and all these parties that really got their ideas from Trump no longer have their biggest idol?” Estonia’s new prime minister, Kaja Kallas, said in an interview from Tallinn. “I think populism is here to stay and won’t go anywhere.”

The shock in Estonia, a euro-area and NATO state, came after elections in 2019 when the anti-immigrant EKRE group that its rivals had vowed to shun was asked to join a coalition government. Despite repeated scandals -- EKRE officials called 35-year-old Finnish Premier Sanna Marin a “cashier” in reference to one of her previous jobs and questioned Joe Biden’s election triumph over Trump -- the alliance held together before a corruption probe sank its biggest member, the Centre Party.

President Kersti Kaljulaid wasted no time in tapping Kallas, whose Reform Party had actually won the most votes two years ago, to head a new government. That move has made Estonia, a Baltic country of 1.3 million people, the only EU state where women occupy the top two political posts.

In office, Kallas plans to improve her nation’s green credentials and enhance its reputation as a digital hub by boosting investment. Estonia, which helped create Skype, is already making progress in developing digital certificates for vaccinations against Covid-19, she said.

Complicating politics somewhat is the effect that EKRE and other groups that mimic Trump have had on their competitors. “They’ve pushed the mainstream parties more toward populism,” according to Kallas.

But the departure of EKRE, which left the week before Biden was inaugurated as president in the U.S., can still be a positive development that helps paints the country in a new light.

“When they’re not in government, people can ignore them,” she said. “It’s different when they’re in government and everyone’s looking that this is the direction that Estonia’s going in.”

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