Election Estonian Elections. Stability and consensus
2011 elections in Estonia is a distinct indication of a political development in very much the right direction. The government coalition did ´deliver´ to the voters, and in a relation of reciprocity, the voters delivered back.
Published on balticworlds.com on mars 12, 2011
Estonia held its 6th parliamentary elections on the 6th of March. The results clearly demonstrate that the incumbent government coalition, liberal Reform Party (Reformierakond) and conservative Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit (IRL) has done a good job in the eyes of the voters, handling the deep economic crisis that hit the entire region in 2008. As it now seems, this coalition will continue to stay in power under the leadership of Reform party leader Andrus Ansip. The coalition is the first to last an entire period of four years, even though the Social Democratic Party left it in 2009. In comparison to its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, Tallinn did not explode in antagonistic street riots or attacks on parliament and governmental representatives as reactions to political inability to handle the crisis. In contrast to deeply troubled Latvia, where IMF finally had to step in and bail the country out, the Estonian government managed to bring down the budget deficit by its own, a deficit that now is among the lowest in the European Union. However, even if unemployment has been brought down to around 14 percent from a disastrous 20 percent in 2009, the figure is still very high, hitting some regions quite strongly. In spite of this, in January 2011 Estonia entered the Euro-zone, which furthermore adds to the picture of a striking capability of the ruling coalition.
When looking at Estonia, it is at times easy to forget that the country is part of the large group of former Communist states, and even was part of the former Soviet Union. Whereas many of them are plagued by manipulated elections, weak state capacity, political parties that usually are described as ´façades´ for business groups and related interests, neither of these tendencies are present in Estonian politics. Elections have long since by international observers and independent organizations such as Freedom House been assessed as “free and fair”. Estonia is moreover a pioneer globally in the use of e-voting, and in 2011 elections around 25 percent of the voters used that opportunity, to vote on the internet. The long-lasting dispute and discussion on Estonia´s citizenship legislation and its consequential disenfranchisement of the Russian-speaking minority is by now well-known and need not be repeated here. There are however still larger segments of the permanently resident Russian-speaking population (around 100 000) that, for various reasons, have not acquired citizenship and thus are not allowed to vote in the national elections. From a democratic point of view, this is not ideal. However, and in contrast to Latvia, citizenship is not a requirement to vote in local elections.
The outcome of the elections does not come as a surprise. Opinion polls predicted that the coalition government would continue. Reform party gained 28, 6 percent (33 seats), IRL 20,5 (23 seats). The major opposition party, Center party, ended up where it usually have done, with 23,3 percent (26 seats).The ´real ´winner when compared to 2007 is the Social Democratic Party which has 17, 1 percent (19 seats) and increased its voting share with 6, 5 percent. Other parties competing in the elections, Greens, agrarians, nationalist and Russian-oriented, did not receive enough votes to enter parliament. Voting turnout was around 63 percent, highest in Tallinn with 70 percent and lowest in the Russian-dominated area of Ida-Virumaa with around 55 percent. If compared to Sweden´s 80 percent turnout, this may appear as low, but in an international perspective it is a decent figure. A clear majority show up at the polls, and furthermore it is the mainstream, established parties that now seem to attract the voters. The campaign has been described as less populistic and more issue-oriented than previously, yet another sign of a maturation in political culture. A positive sign from a democratic point of view is that the mechanism of accountability seem to be working in Estonia, in the sense that voters actually reward a sitting government that has done well, not only punish. These results have been taken as an indication that Estonian politics is stabilizing also since the government sat for an entire four-year period. A common pattern has otherwise been that government´s are fairly short-lived.
The four parties that made it into the 101 seat parliament (with a threshold of five percent) all trace their roots back to the period of transition in the early 90s, when the first elections after independence was restored took place in 1992. Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit is a merge between Isamaa (For Fatherland), created in 1992 by among others Mart Laar; a party which gained the highest percentage of votes in the 92´ parliamentary elections, formed a coalition government (rule rather than exception in Estonia´s proportional representation system) and actively speeded up privatization during a formative period which paved way for the coming years. The party must initially be described as a conservative, Christian with radical nationalist outlooks, advocating restoration of the Estonian pre-war state and using harsh rhetoric against the Russian-speaking minority. However, the ‘radical’ nationalism fairly quickly faded away, and at least since late 90s, Isamaaliit could be characterized as “mainstream” European Christian-conservatism (member of the European People´s Party, EPP). Res Publica saw the day of light as a party organization before national elections in 2003, when among others well-known political scientist and former presidential candidate Rein Taagepera and the young and correct Juhan Parts (director of the State Audit) launched it. The party won a land-slide victory in 2003, promising to stick to ethics in politics, and to fight corruption. The profile of professionalism and a “technical” approach to politics appealed to an electorate which is not so much interested in political ideologies as in solutions and practical reforms. The parties merged before the national elections in 2007.
Reform Party (Reformierakond), has also roots back to early independence. A classic liberal party in its outlooks, a core electorate is the entrepreneurs of the new capitalist economy. The party propagated quick and radical privatization, low taxes, in combination with an outlook of the limited state and low state expenditure. Today, the party attracts voters outside its core electorate, as is obvious from this and previous elections.
Centerparty (Keskerakond) is deviant in the Estonian context. It bears more resemblance to leader-dominated parties in some of the other post-soviet states, because of the crucial role played by the controversial Edgar Savisaar, the party´s leader since its creation in early 90s. While the other parties are not exclusively associated with one person, Center party is to a certain extent Edgar Savisaar. With a background as a party boss (although moderate) in the Communist party that became one of the major, popular, leaders of Popular Front in Estonia, Savisaar is for many in the political establishment something of a black sheep. Often accused of an authoritarian leadership style – which fits well into the picture of a leader-dominated party – he and his party is constantly manoever out of potential government coalitions. Given the fact that this is one of Estonia´s most successful parties in terms of number of votes (it usually receives around 25 percent), this situation is a frustrating one for Savisaar who often declares himself a winner of elections. The Center party is not a leftist party in the sense of being socialist (such alternatives are not attractive in the center-liberal –conservative dominated Estonian party politics), but it advocates progressive taxes and extensive pensions, and a welfare system where the state bears a substantial responsibility. Its core electorate is at times described as the “loosers” of transition, those that have had a hard time adapting to modernization: people in smaller towns and villages and in the rural areas, the not so highly educated or professional, the unemployed, older people with small pensions to survive on, and parts of the Russian-speaking minority. Simply put, those who are disappointed in changes which they never wished for and did not benefit from.
Social Democrats Party, finally, emerged out of the so called Moderates, and today advocates third way politics and progressive taxes. Hence, the development of this party in more of a classic social democratic direction, and its success in these year’s elections, would indicate that Estonian politics is slowly getting a welfarist dimension.
Particular Features of the Party System
It should be noted, that ethnic voting – in the sense that only one of the ethnic groups vote exclusively for one part – is not putting its mark on politics in Estonia anymore (as it still, to a certain extent, does in Latvia). There is no uniquely ethnic party, that in the eyes of the voters or through its rhetorical positioning, caters only to Estonians or Russian-speakers. The tendencies of ethnic voting that did exist in the early and mid 90s, where Isamaaliit targeted the nationalist Estonians and some Russian-oriented parties the Russian-speakers, have withered away. Partly this is because there were not enough Russian-speaking citizens to uphold that side of the conflict dimension. That ethnic voting was no longer part of the game showed already in the 2003 national elections. However, this should not be taken as an indication that ethnic distance at the social level is low; on the contrary if we compare Estonia with Latvia, the distance –in terms of for example intermarriages, language skills – is higher in Estonia. This is partly a consequence of geographical settlement, since many Russian-speakers live in north-eastern Ida-Virumaa that borders Russia, whereas in Latvia the population is more mixed in the major cities.
I would like to point out a few more particularities in order to understand and rightly interpret developments of the Estonian party system and the present election results. Ever since independence, the political left has been significantly weak. The Communist party was banned at an early stage, precisely as in Latvia. The left-wing continued to be very weak while centre, liberal and right-wing parties dominated the political spectrum. For example, only seven percent of Estonians self-identified with the left in 1997, compared to 47 percent centrists and 35 percent for the right. One major reason for the difficulty for left-wing parties to gain ground is the continuous relation to, and fear of, Russia. Another is the lack of legitimacy of the republican Communist party in Estonia because of total incompatibility with a highly individualist political culture. However, there is definitely a tendency of stronger social democratic representation (whether this is really ‘left’ is open for discussion) , and with a continuously strong Center Party , a liberal Reform and conservative IRL, Estonia is beginning to resemble a classic left/right dominated party system, where socioeconomic issues of distribution and redistribution form the back-bone of the political struggle.
After EU accession, Estonian party politics has not been subjected to any stronger tensions or the rise of xenophobic or radically nationalist parties. Among the new member states, Euro-barometer data shows that Estonians are the most satisfied with their parliament and government. Trust in political parties is not high in any of the former communist states, but Estonia has developed in this respect as well.
Research furthermore shows that Estonian parties over the years have come to be increasingly regarded as public organizations rather than private interest groups (a common perception, and rightly so, in many of the former communist states). Hence, parties in Estonia have gained in public credibility. In combination with a media climate that likewise has changed from a focus on politics as leader-centered, scandalous and corrupt, to actually treating parties as collective organizations driven by ideas and some visions. Even stronger than the recent election results this indicates a distinct transformation over the last ten years or so, towards a civic political culture of both respect and critique.
A final feature forming Estonian politics is the basic consensus on economic policies in place already when the Popular Front won elections in 1990. This stable vision of a highly liberalized Estonian economy, has been the golden key of Estonia´s success, and is an explanation to the reform capacity shown earlier and also in these last four years. Political parties in Estonia (with the important exception of more Russian-oriented parties) have shared a liberal economic vision, while less agreement has been shown in areas like welfare-state expansion and taxes.
2011 elections in Estonia is a distinct indication of a political development in very much the right direction. The government coalition did ´deliver´ to the voters, and in a relation of reciprocity, the voters delivered back. I have tried to point out, that these results should be analyzed in an even broader context, where not only this ´contractual´ approach, but also a number of additional features, point in the same, positive, direction.