Election Elections in Estonia: Winner Sidelined in Coalition Talks

Immediate reactions to the election results focused largely on the triumph of EKRE which nearly tripled its number of mandates. EKRE holding nearly a fifth of the Riigikogu seats ushers in a new era in Estonian politics where the populist far-right is a force to be reckoned with.

Published on balticworlds.com on mars 26, 2019

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On March 3, 2019, Estonia held elections to the 101-member Riigikogu, the national parliament. This brief offers an overview of the main contenders, key campaign issues, election results as well as ongoing coalition talks.

Parties and leaders

The number of parliamentary parties in Estonia has ranged from four to six since the turn of the millennium. Four of the contenders in the 2019 elections – the Reform Party, the Centre Party, the Social Democrats and Pro Patria – are mainstays of the Estonian political scene whose history goes back to the early 1990s.  The Reform Party, characterized by a liberal pro-market orientation and a strong commitment to EU and NATO membership, was the leading government party from 2005 to 2016. The party entered the 2019 contest with a new leader, Kaja Kallas, at the helm. The daughter of Siim Kallas, former Prime Minister as well as European Commissioner, Kaja Kallas had worked as an attorney specializing in competition law before being elected to the Riigikogu in 2010 and to the European Parliament in 2014.

The Centre Party has been the “eternal second” in Estonian elections, often losing to Reform by just a few percentage points of the vote. Despite being the party of choice for up to three quarters of the Russian-speaking citizens of Estonia, the Centre is a catch-all party as opposed to an ethnic party. Appealing to socio-economically vulnerable groups, including low-income residents and pensioners, the Centre is seen as considerably more left-leaning – as well as more populist — than its main contender, the Reform Party. Despite its size and political weight, the Centre Party was consistently constrained to the opposition between 2007 and 2016, as the other mainstream parties publicly ruled out cooperation with it. Such ostracism was due to the party’s controversial leader, Edgar Savisaar, whose litany of sins includes corruption, money laundering, shady deals with actors close to the Kremlin, and occasional divergence from the pro-Western orthodoxy of Estonian foreign and security policy. Savisaar’s replacement by a new-generation politician, Jüri Ratas, who was elected chairman in November 2016, led to a spectacular unfreezing of the Estonian party system. In a well-coordinated palace coup, two smaller coalition partners – Pro Patria and Social Democrats – turned their backs on the ruling Reform Party and formed a new government with the Centre, with Jüri Ratas as Prime Minister. By the launch of the 2019 election campaigns, Ratas had been in power for over two years. In the six months leading up the elections, the Centre and Reform were neck-to-neck in the polls, with support rates in the 20 to 30 per cent range.

The Social Democratic Party of Estonia (SDE) entered the race from the position of a junior partner in a governing coalition. Led by Jevgeni Ossinovski, a young Estonian-Russian politician with a liberal pro-Western orientation, the party’s support rate had declined from about 15% in 2015 to roughly 10% in the months leading up to the elections. The Social Democrats were widely seen as the architects of a failed tax reform: a significant hike in alcohol excise tax had given rise to a massive alcohol rally across the Estonian-Latvian border, with tax revenue lost by the Estonian state estimated to top 160 million euros.[1]

Pro Patria (Isamaa) is the descendant of the party associated with Estonia’s shock-therapy approach which laid the foundation for the country’s transition success. After several mergers and name changes, as well as years spent searching for the right ‘identity’ and political niche, the party entered the electoral race with a consolidated public image and a renewed commitment to economic and social conservatism. The Party has been led by Helir-Valdor Seeder, a long-serving party member and Minister of Agriculture 2007-2014, since 2017.

The remaining contenders were newer political formations. The Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond, EKRE), was formed in 2012. It is a right-wing populist group, subscribing to nationalist, illiberal, and xenophobic views, as well as euroskepticism. In the 2015 general elections, held at the height of the migration crisis in the EU, the Party received 8 % of the vote, winning 7 seats in the Riigikogu. Led by a farther and son duo – Mart and Martin Helme – the party’s popularity continued to rise, resulting in support rates between 15 and 22% over the year prior to the election.

The newest participant in the race was Estonia 200 (Eesti 200), a liberal movement posing as an alternative to the established parties, declaring its commitment to evidence-based policy-making and preoccupation with devising a long-term strategy for Estonia. Led by Kristina Kallas, a social scientist and a recognized expert on issues of minority integration, the movement registered as a political party a mere five months before the election. It polled at around the electoral threshold, keeping observers in suspense. The other parties, including the Greens, the Free Party, and Richness of Life polled consistently under 5% and were not deemed to be viable contenders for seats in the parliament.

Campaigns and issues

The election campaigns had no clear focal points, making it difficult to identify central themes. According to a representative survey, voters identified tax issues as the main topic of the elections, followed by a conflict between liberal and conservative values, as well as concerns about excise tax hikes and rising prices.[2] A text analysis of party programs, using machine learning, identified nine main themes including local politics, healthcare and social protection, security, children and family, Estonia in the globalized world, governance, nature and natural resources, schools and education, and entrepreneurship.[3] Pro Patria and Reform emphasized entrepreneurship, while EKRE, the Social Democrats and the Centre Party prioritized social protection. Family, children and schools were emphasized by all parties. Specifically, there seems to be an emerging political consensus in Estonia about the need to build a unified school system, eliminating the segregation of students into Estonian and Russian language schools. Notably, the switch to instruction in Estonian is supported by the majority of Russian-speaking parents. Only the Centre Party continued to defend the continued existence of separate state-funded Russian-language schools. The issue of language-based social segregation in Estonia was emphasized, in particular, by Estonia 200 that carried out a provocative poster campaign in Tallinn which, according to several commentators, contributed to the polarization of society instead of diminishing existing divides.

Election results

The turnout was 63.7% — roughly at the same level as over the past dozen years. Out of the 887 420 eligible voters, 565 045 cast their vote. A whopping 43.8 % of all votes cast were electronic votes (amounting to nearly a quarter of a million e-votes), attesting to persisting high levels of trust in Estonia’s internet-based voting system that allows a voter to cast a vote from any internet-connected computer anywhere in the world, using an ID-card or Mobile ID for authentication.[4]  The election process was correctly conducted: at the time of writing, no irregularities have been identified, and the complaints received by the Electoral Committee and the Supreme Court have been, after due consideration, rejected.

The Reform Party won by a surprisingly wide margin. It received 28.9% of the vote and took 34 mandates in the 101-member Riigikogu, gaining 4 seats. The Centre Party’s vote share was 23.1, corresponding to 26 seats (a loss of 1 seat). EKRE came in third with 17.8% of the vote and 19 seats (and increase of 7 compared to the XIII Riigikogu). Pro Patria took 11.4% of the vote, and secured 12 mandates, losing two seats. Finally, the Social Democrats were the main losers, taking 9.8 of the votes and 10 mandates (compared to 15.2 and 15, respectively, four years earlier). Eesti 200 fell just below the threshold with 4.4% of the vote.

Estonia uses a variant of open-list proportional representation where voters vote for a specific candidate, rather than a party as a whole. In terms of preference votes given to candidates, the Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas emerged as the winner with over 20 000 votes. Incumbent PM Jüri Ratas who ran in the same district as Kallas, received 9702 votes. Other major vote magnets included Mihhail Kõlvart, a Centre Party politician popular among Russian-speaking voters (17 150 votes), Mart Helme, leader of EKRE (9170 votes), and Siim Kallas, veteran politician of the Reform Party (8733 votes).

Table 1. Results of the 2019 Riigikogu election
Vote share

(change compared to 2015)

Mandates

(change compared to 2015)

Reform Party 28.9   (+1.2) 34    (+4)
Centre Party 23.1   (-1.7) 26    (-1)
Conservative People’s Party 17.8   (+9.7) 19    (+12)
Pro Patria 11.4   (-2.3) 12    (-2)
Social Democrats 9.8     (-5.4) 10    (-5)
Estonia 200 4.4     (NA) 0     (NA)
Greens 1.8     (+0.9) 0     (0)
Richness of Life 1.2     (NA) 0     (NA)
Free Party 1.2    (-7.5) 0     (-8)
Independent candidates 0.3    (+0.1) 0     (0)
United Left Party 0.1    (0) 0     (0)

 

Source: Electoral Committee of the Republic of Estonia, www.vvk.ee

Comments on the results

Immediate reactions to the election results focused largely on the triumph of EKRE which nearly tripled its number of mandates. EKRE holding nearly a fifth of the Riigikogu seats ushers in a new era in Estonian politics where the populist far-right is a force to be reckoned with. With these elections, the image of Estonia as a bastion of liberalism immune to the specter of populist nationalism haunting other post-communist countries took a significant blow. EKRE’s rise was not unexpected – it had polled at around 20% for over a year, appealing, in particular, to the less educated low-income groups, rural voters, the self-employed and the unemployed. EKRE is much more popular among men than among women.

The worse-than-expected performance of the incumbent Centre Party has to do with dwindling support among Russian-speaking voters, especially in the North-Eastern Ida-Viru county where turnout was a mere 48.2 (compared to 60-70% in all other 14 counties). The Centre Party got 33% fewer votes in Ida-Virumaa than in 2015. It also lost about 13% of its voters in Tallinn. There are both broader and more specific reasons for this development. By the March 2019 elections, the government led by Jüri Ratas had been in office for 2 years and 3 months. After nearly a decade in opposition, the Party had risen to power in November 2016 not through electoral victory but as a result of a “palace coup” made possible by the ousting of the founder of the party, Edgar Savisaar. The 2019 elections constituted the first true test of the extent to which the party’s relationship with its voters has weathered the dual transformation – i.e. the modernization of the party under a new leadership and the transition from being an opposition force to coping with the realities and responsibilities of being in power. In particular, since the removal of Savisaar, questions about the continued ability of the party to hold together its Estonian and Russian-speaking wings were frequently voiced. Under the premiership of Ratas, the party had adopted a staunchly pro-Western stance on foreign and security policy – a notable change from Savisaar’s often muddled positions on issues such as NATO membership or the nature of Russia’s activities in Ukraine. In addition, during the Centre Party’s time in office, voters in Ida-Viru region had come to realize that the Party’s long-awaited rise to power did not bring about greater attention to the peripheral region’s socio-economic problems. The government’s top-down policies aimed at merging Estonian and Russian language schools in the region generated concerns and opposition among members of both language communities.

More concretely, the Centre’s failure to mobilize voters in Ida-Virumaa was largely caused by a local political crisis that unfolded in the wake of the October 2017 local elections.  While the Centre has a long history of winning elections in Narva, Estonia’s third largest city located on the border with Russia, the party’s political group in the Narva city council collapsed in 2018, after eight council members, accused of corruption, left the Party, triggering a broader exodus from the Party’s local branch. Yana Toom, chairwoman of the Party’s Narva chapter and a leading politician of the Centre’s Russian-speaking wing, received only 5262 votes in the March 2019 election (compared to over 25 000 in 2014 European Parliament elections).  While the Centre Party still took about a half all votes in Ida-Virumaa, its standing in the Russian-dominated county seems to have substantially weakened, raising questions about who or what will replace it as the object of Russian-speakers’ political allegiances.

Coalition talks take an unexpected turn

The leader of the victorious Reform Party, Kaja Kallas, had two viable options for forming a coalition: an alliance with the Centre Party (60 seats in the 101-member Riigikogu) or a coalition with Pro Patria and the Social Democrats (56 seats). Before elections, Kallas has explicitly ruled out a coalition with EKRE whom she identified as a “danger to Estonia’s constitutional order.” [5]

The week following election day was eventful. Kallas invited the Centre Party to begin coalition talks – the latter turned down the invitation on March 8, citing programmatic differences on tax matters, as well as expressing a dislike of Reform’s allegedly ultimatum-like red lines. Following the rejection, the Reform Party turned to the Social Democrats and Pro Patria. The first accepted the invitation, while the latter did not, thus becoming a kingmaker in the power struggle between Estonia’s two main political rivals – Reform and Centre.

On March 11, the Centre Party announced that it was launching consultations with Pro Patria and EKRE – parties populating the right of the Estonian political spectrum. The prospective three-member coalition would have 57 seats in the Riigikogu.

Sidelining the winner of elections by accommodating EKRE was an unexpected move. During his more than two years as Prime Minister, Jüri Ratas had cultivated  and consolidated the image of himself as a liberal, pro-Western leader – notably during Estonia’s presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2017.  Ratas had repeatedly and vocally clashed with EKRE politicians, and had ruled out the possibility of cooperating with a party that “does not tolerate certain ethnic groups or races.”[6] Thus, inviting EKRE to coalition talks was widely seen as a betrayal of values and of promises made to voters. Critics claim that a government that includes EKRE undermines Estonia’s constitutional order as well as its political culture, and tarnishes the country’s image internationally, aggravating the already significant security risks stemming from current geopolitical realities. The move also raised questions about Ratas’ political strategy. With the majority of Centre Party voters being members of the Russian-speaking minority, a coalition with a party that trumpets Estonian nationalism and declares distrust and animosity towards minorities and migrants appears to be a fast-lane approach to alienating loyalists and weakening the vote base. Cracks within the party are already emerging – Raimond Kaljulaid, a popular city district elder in Tallinn, resigned from the party board over the proposed coalition with EKRE, and appealed to Russian-speaking politicians in the Centre Party to declare their readiness to vote against the proposed alliance – a development that would deprive the Centre-Pro Patria-EKRE coalition of the necessary support in the Riigikogu, thus bringing the negotiations to a halt. While the Centre seems to hope that EKRE will curb its inflammatory rhetoric once in power, there is little evidence of that happening. In a post-election interview to Deutsche Welle, one of the leaders of EKRE, Martin Helme, accused the government of lying about immigration numbers, argued that Estonians were being replaced by migrants, criticized Estonian judges for endorsing same-sex marriages and compared the European Union to the Soviet Union.[7] Prime Minister Jüri Ratas has already had to publicly apologize to “all women, gynecologists, as well as men” offended by EKRE’s post-election statements on abortion.[8]

Although the three parties have held talks for several weeks, the composition of the new government of Estonia is not a done deal yet. Because the Electoral Committee and Supreme Court are still processing election-related complaints and appeals (22 in total), the results of elections will be officially declared only after March 28. The new Riigikogu will convene within ten days after election results have been formally declared. The incumbent government will resign after the new parliament has convened. The President will, within 14 days of the resignation of the government, nominate a prime ministerial candidate who has two weeks to present the principles of the formation of a new government to the Riigikogu which will either authorize the candidate for Prime Minister to form the Government or not. If the candidate for Prime Minister fails to receive the backing of the majority in the Riigikogu, the President will, within a week, nominate another candidate.

President Kersti Kaljulaid has said that she will nominate Kaja Kallas, the leader of the winning party, as candidate for Prime Minister. If the Centre’s alliance with the two right-wing parties holds, Kallas will not be able to propose a government that will be endorsed by the Riigikogu. Voters and observers anxious to meet the new government of Estonia are advised to stock up on patience.

In conclusion, three long-term implications of the elections deserve to be mentioned. First, the re-normalization of the Centre Party after leadership change has multiplied options for coalition formation, making Estonian politics less predictable. Second, there is potential for the emergence of a strong conservative bloc, especially if both EKRE and Pro Patria end up in government. Such a bloc will be able to influence policy formation and shape political discourse in Estonia. Third, a coalition with EKRE may split the Centre Party and alienate Russian-speaking voters. Increased volatility of the Russian-speaking vote has the potential to substantially re-shape patterns of political competition in Estonia.

References

[1] Estonian Public Broadcasting, GRAAFIK Kolm aastat Läti piirikaubandust: kui palju on riik maksuraha kaotanud? 16.09.2018, https://majandus24.postimees.ee/6405999/graafik-kolm-aastat-lati-piirikaubandust-kui-palju-on-riik-maksuraha-kaotanud

[2] Urmas Jaagant, “Küsitlus: olulisim valimisteema on maksupoliitika” 26.02.2019, https://poliitika.postimees.ee/6531831/kusitlus-olulisim-valimisteema-on-maksupoliitika

[3] Martin Mölder, Otsides nende valimiste teemat, 18.02, 2019, https://www.ohtuleht.ee/941636/martin-molder-otsides-nende-valimiste-teemat

[4] Estonia has one of the most highly-developed national ID card systems in the world. The ID cards are equipped with a chip that carries embedded files, using 2048-bit public key encryption.

[5] Estonian Public Broadcasting, “Kallas: EKRE danger to constitutional order, cooperation impossible,”  06.01.2019, https://news.err.ee/892602/kallas-ekre-danger-to-constitutional-order-cooperation-impossible

[6] Estonian Public Broadcasting, “Ratas peab koalitsiooni EKRE-ga võimatuks,” 22.11. 2018, https://poliitika.postimees.ee/6459970/ratas-peab-koalitsiooni-ekre-ga-voimatuks

[7] Deutsche Welle, “Far-right party deputy: ’We are the mainstream in Estonia,’” 13.03.2019 https://www.dw.com/en/far-right-party-deputy-we-are-the-mainstream-in-estonia/a-47893557

[8] Estonian Public Broadcasting, “Ratas EKRE-le: naistearstide ja naiste süüdistamine peab lõppema,” 22.03.2019, https://www.err.ee/922669/ratas-ekre-le-naistearstide-ja-naiste-suudistamine-peab-loppema

  • by Piret Ehin

    Piret Ehin is Senior Researcher and Deputy Director for Research at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu, Estonia. She is also the founding Director of the Centre for EU-Russia Studies at the same institution. She holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Arizona (2002). Her main research interests include democracy, legitimacy and political support, European integration and Europeanization, and international relations in the Baltic Sea region. Her work has appeared in the European Journal of Political Research, Journal of Common Market Studies, Cooperation and Conflict, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties and the Journal of Baltic Studies. She has led international consortium projects, including a Horizon 2020 Twinning project UPTAKE.

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  • Election coverage

    Baltic Worlds is commenting on the parliamentary and presidential elections taking place in countries around the Baltic Sea region and in Eastern Europe. The comments and analyses present the parties, the candidates and the main issues of the election, as well as analyze the implications of the results.

    Sofie Bedford, member of the scientific advisory board, is since 2015 arranging the election coverage.

    Contact: sofie.bedford@ucrs.uu.se