HELSINKI – Estonia's nationalist interior minister narrowly survived a no-confidence vote Tuesday that was triggered by his mocking of neighboring Finland's young new prime minister and her party.
Members of the 101-seat Riigikogu voted 44-42 to remove Estonian Conservative People's Party Chairman Mart Helme from his Cabinet post. However, the motion needed an absolute majority of 51 votes to pass.
The move was initiated by the opposition Reform Party.
During a radio interview on Sunday, Helme, 70, took a swipe at Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 34. He quipped that "a cashier" was now leading Estonia's close neighbor — an apparent reference to Marin's past stint working at a department store.
Helme, a former Estonian ambassador to Russia, also called Marin's Social Democratic Party “red” and alleged it was out to "liquidate" Finland with its policies.
Marin last week became the world's youngest sitting prime minister and the third woman to lead Finland's government.
Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid telephoned her Finnish counterpart, Sauli Niinisto, on Monday to give a public apology on behalf of Estonia and its interior minister to Marin and her government.
Helme himself apologized much later Monday, blaming media for overplaying his comments.
He is widely known in the Baltic country for political gaffes and sexist comments, including personal attacks on Kaljulaid. Earlier this year, he described Estonia's first female president as “an emotionally heated woman.”
His remarks about Marin nearly led Monday to the collapse of Estonia's three-party coalition government led by Prime Minister Juri Ratas. Kaljulaid urged him to fire Helme.
Ratas refused, offering the government's apology to Finland but saying his Cabinet would remain unchanged.
Helme's anti-immigrant Estonian Conservative People's Party, or EKRE, emerged from a March election as Estonia's third-largest party.
His son Martin Helme, 43, is EKRE's vice chairman and Estonia's current finance minister. Three of the party's ministers have resigned from the Cabinet over various scandals since Ratas' government took office in April.
Along with EKRE and Ratas' Center Party, the majority coalition includes the conservative Fatherland party.