Riigikogu. Parliament building in Toompea Castle: the seat of the Parliament.

Election The 2015 Parliamentary Elections in Estonia. Rewarding the squirrels

The Estonian electorate rewarded the incumbents granting the Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas' Estonian Reform Party approximately the same amount of support as in the latest election 2011. The foreign affairs certainly played a role in the electoral campaign, but we should not forget about the government’s economic record.

Published on balticworlds.com on March 9, 2015

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The elections to the Estonian parliament Riigikogu were held on 1 March 2015 and when the preliminary results were published there seemed to be no surprises. The Estonian electorate rewarded the incumbents granting the Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas’ Estonian Reform Party (in Estonian: Eesti Reformierakond, ER) approximately the same amount of support (27.7%) as in the 2011 elections (28.6%). ER’s coalition partner Social Democratic Party (Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond, SDE) fared somewhat worse receiving 1.9 percentage points less than in the last elections (see table 1 below). The government’s main rival – Estonian Centre Party (Eesti Keskerakond, EKe) – increased its support from 23.3% in 2011 to 24.8% in 2015. What can explain these seemingly uneventful elections? Furthermore, is Estonian political scene as stable as it may seem?

The electoral results: A victory for the squirrels?

If the winner is defined as that party which receives the highest electoral support, ER is the definite winner of the 2015 elections. ER is a classically liberal party that was established in 1994. The party’s symbol is a blue squirrel in a jump and it is therefore fair to describe the last fifteen years as a “squirrels era”[1] because ER has continuously been in the government since 1999. At the same time, this electoral victory must feel somewhat bittersweet for the young Rõivas under whose leadership the party lost three seats in the parliament. Still, considering the fact that Rõivas took over the party leadership and the position of Prime Minister from Andrus Ansip less than a year ago, it is a positive performance. The relatively stable electoral results attests to either the great potential of the young Prime Minister, or the maturity and special role of his party in the Estonian politics. Having in mind that ER has got the highest number of votes, it is safe to assume that the President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves (SDE) will select Rõivas to be formateur of the new coalition government.

Having in mind that the coalition partner – SDE – did not perform equally good and lost four seats in the parliament, it is not quite sure that SDE will be chosen once again as the coalition partner. The party’s ideological profile is characterized by the centre-to-left positions on social issues and has a third way (social democratic) orientation in regards to the economic policy. Most probably, the party’s ideological orientation could be also its main liability in the coalition negotiations. How will SDE be able to reconcile its social democratic orientation with the more conservative orientation of the potential coalition partners such as Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit, IRL) and Estonian Free Party (Eesti Vabaerakond, EV)?

The conservative IRL, which can be described as the political veteran of the Estonian politics, lost even more seats in the parliament than SDE. Its representation has diminished by nine seats (down from 23 seats) and it can be considered to be the major looser of the Estonian elections. While there might be some bitterness left about how Rõivas, in 2014, ejected IRL from the government in favor of SDE, this trio (ER, SDE, IRL) is one of the most likely coalition variants. All the three parties are relatively established and can be assumed to be predictable and pragmatic actors. This cannot be said of the newcomers: EV and Estonian Conservative People’s Party (Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond, EKRE).

Apart from the newcomers, the only party that gained votes in the elections is EKe, but it cannot qualify as the victor in any sense. First, despite its positive performance, the party came second to ER and it is therefore unlikely to be entrusted with the task of forming a new government. Second, having in mind its closeness to Russia’s leadership (EKe signed a co-operation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s party “United Russia” in 2004[2]) and its centre-to-left positions, EKe appears as an unlikely coalition partner. After an electoral campaign in which ER stressed its tough stance on defence (against Russia), Rõivas would appear inconsistent and loose his credibility if ER would invite the considerably more Russia-friendly EKe to join the government.

Table 1: Electoral results of the Riigikogi elections[3]
parties (Estonian acronym)
Electoral results 2011, %
(no. of seats)
Emor poll,
11-18 February, %
AS poll, February %
Emor poll,
23-26 February, %
Preliminary results 2015,
% (no. of seats)
Reform Party (ER)
28.6 (33) 23 22 26 27.7 (30)
Centre Party (EKe)
23.3 (26) 22 27 22 24.8 (27)
Social Democratic
Party (SDE)
17.1 (19) 20 18 19 15.2 (15)
Pro Patria
and Res
Publica Union (IRL)
20.5 (23) 14 16 16 13.7 (14)
Free Party
9 6 10 8.7 (8)
Estonian Conservative People’s
Party (EKRE)
9 6 6 8.1 (7)

Did the conflict in Ukraine decide the elections in Estonia?

For a long period of time, there seemed to be a consensus in the American political science that the foreign affairs are too esoteric for the common people and do not dominate, or cannot predict, their electoral behavior[4]. This so-called Almond-Lippmann consensus started to crumble when the Vietnam War became a political issue in the American politics in late 1960s. Nowadays, the political scientists argue that the foreign policy issues can have a certain effect on the electoral outcome if three criteria are fulfilled. First, the public has consistent and “coherent attitudes about foreign policy”[5]. Second, the voters “must be able to access these attitudes when they vote”[6], or, to put it simply, the public should not need to devote a lengthy time span to think about what their opinion about the current foreign policy issues are (if these issues are supposed to guide their electoral behavior). Finally, the political parties has to formulate and be clear about their foreign policy positions because only then the voters have a chance to “use their attitudes to distinguish between candidates”[7].

But what about the Baltic States, and Estonia, in particular: Is there any link between foreign affairs and electoral behavior? To be more precise, did the conflict in Ukraine and the Russian invasion of Crimea play any role in the Estonian elections? It certainly seems so. Estonia, traditionally, has been associated with a pro-Western orientation that guided its choice to integrate in the European and Transatlantic organizations. At least partly, this orientation, probably, has sprung from the tragic historic experience of being invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940. It is therefore not such a far-fetched idea that Estonians, who could see in real time on their TVs how the Crimean peninsula was invaded, first, by the now infamous “little green man” and, later, by Russian troops in March 2014, feared that the conflict between Ukraine and Russia could spill over to the Baltic States. The behavior of Russia did not ease the increasing concerns about its aggressiveness and intentions. For instance, European Leadership Network noted in its report that Russian military planes, on many occasions throughout 2014, have violated Estonia’s territorial air-space and engaged in several high risk incidents[8]. One of the most spectacular and most scandalous was the incident involving Estonian security service operative Eston Kohver who was abducted by Russian agents from the Estonian soil and taken to Moscow to be tried for espionage[9].

Although all the three Baltic States have taken a principled stance against the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the initially toothless and disproportionately mild response from the EU added to the Estonian concerns that the West did not really understand the seriousness of the crisis. President Ilves has therefore been not only a vocal critic of what he sees as Russia’s “reckless and irresponsible behavior throughout our region” [10]. He has also been the uncomfortable voice in the European discussion on the crisis in Ukraine that has reminded about the dangers of appeasement likening the weak EU response to the Munich compromise[11]. Ilves has not been the only one to worry about a possible spill-over of the conflict in Ukraine to the Baltics. Latvia’s Minister of Defence Raimonds Vējonis, already a year ago, expressed similar concerns about a potential destabilizing scenario being played out in the Baltic States[12]. Also, as late as on 18 February 2015, British Minister of Defense Michael Fallon warned that Russia might try to implement destabilizing tactics that were used in Ukraine also in the Baltic States[13]. Needless to say, Fallon’s assessment was reported in the Estonian media just one day after the statement was made[14]. Probably, it is not very surprising that the ER consistently emphasized the state of national security in its electoral campaign thus posing as the party that takes responsibility for the country’s defense[15]. Interestingly, the ER’s electoral campaign with tough rhetoric on defense paralleled ER’s Latvian counterpart the party “Vienotība” that had been re-elected on a similar platform last year.

The government’s splendid economic record

While it is tempting to conclude that the national security was one of the main reasons for why the incumbents were rewarded with continued support, one should also look at the government’s economic performance. Indeed, if the economy over the last four years have significantly grown as well as unemployment and inequality has diminished, maybe one should not overplay the importance of foreign policy in Estonia’s elections.

The picture that emerges is somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, there is undoubtedly reasons to praise the incumbent government. As its neighbor Latvia, Estonia’s economy, too, had a deep recession throughout the 2008-2009 economic crisis, but Estonia was quick to recover without a help from the IMF or other international donors. The economic recovery was the most visible in 2011 when the real GDP growth hit 8.3%[16] and when the previous elections were held. Also in 2012 the growth rate was relatively high scoring 4.7%, but it fell to 1.6% in 2013[17] and rose only slightly to 1.8% in 2014[18]. Still, Estonia’s economic growth rate has been significantly and consistently higher than the Eurozone’s average in the last years. For instance, in 2014 the growth in the Eurozone countries was only 0.9%[19] which is a half of Estonia’s economic growth rate. While the economic growth has been somewhat sluggish in the last two years, the unemployment figures have been more positive falling from 12.3% in 2011 to 10.0% in 2012 and 8.6% in 2013[20]. It is estimated that the preliminary unemployment rate in 2014 was around 7.4%[21].

On the other hand, while the growth and unemployment rates seem to be a reason for optimism, the income inequality, as measured by Gini coefficient of equalized disposable income, is on the rise: from 31.9 in 2011 to 32.9 in 2013[22]. What is even more important, the income inequality has been consistently higher in Estonia than in the EU on average: 30.8 in 2011 and 30.5 in 2013[23]. Moreover, the rising income inequality is problematic even in the context of the new EU member states where on average it grew from 30.5 in 2011 to 30.6 in 2013[24].

My point here is that the foreign affairs certainly played a role in the electoral campaign, but we should not forget about the government’s economic record. The successful reduction of unemployment seem to be one of the economic achievement that the incumbent government can really be proud of. At the same time, the government’s inability to reduce the social inequality probably explains why SDE – the only government party that has a modern social democratic profile – lost so many seats in the parliament.

Some clouds on the horizon

Recently, the London-based Estonian political scientist Allan Sikk published an insightful analysis of the elections describing them as another victory for ER that will help to “cement” the ER’s position in Estonian politics[25]. Generally, I concur with his description that Estonia’s politics, most likely, will remain stable and that no immediate seismic changes are on the radar. At the same times, I would like to nuance the rosy picture that emerges when reading Sikk’s analysis. Political change does not always unfold in a quick and obvious manner, and, as Paul Pierson once noted, sometimes change occurs as a result of slow-moving process after the pressure has built up over time reaching the level of tipping point[26]. Not all political changes are thus obvious to observers and the challenge is to notice the early warning signals. There are at least two developments which Allan Sikk discusses in his article, but which, in my assessment, deserve more attention and should be watched very closely in future.

First, Estonia’s political system has expanded from a four-party system (ER, EKe, SDE and IRL) to a six-party system (the four aforementioned parties plus EV and EKRE) and the political scene does not anymore seem as stable as before. One very concrete consequence of such a change is that ER will have to choose at least two coalition partners to form a minimal winning coalition, unless ER decides to form a minority government (or, for that matter, a surplus majority cabinet).

Second, emergence of the national conservative party EKRE is a slight surprise. It emerged in 2012 when the nationalist group Estonian Patriotic Movement (Eesti Rahvuslik Liikumine) merged with the older, more established (but electorally weak) party People’s Union of Estonia (Eestimaa Rahvaliit, ERL). This merger is particularly remarkable because the centrist ERL had earlier tried to merge with SDE. It is led by Estonia’s former ambassador to Russia Mart Helme and under his leadership the party has emerged as an anti-Russia, anti-gay and Eurosceptic (but pro-NATO) force. At this point in time, it seems that no party is ready to co-operate with EKRE[27]. To some extent EKRE resembles its Latvian counterpart National Alliance[28] which, in stark contrast to EKRE, has managed to ensure seats in the government despite its nationalist rhetoric. It remains to be seen whether EKRE, too, will be normalized and if so, how long such a process of normalization will take. In case of the National Alliance, the process of normalization took less than a year[29].

[1] Postimees (2015) “Editorial: the six slices of cake”, published on 4 March 2015, available at http://news.postimees.ee/3111105/editorial-the-six-slices-of-cake (accessed on 6 March 2015).

[2] The Baltic Times (2004) “Center Party signs cooperation protocol with Kremlin-controlled United Russia”, published on 15 December 2004, available at http://www.baltictimes.com/news/articles/11595/ (accessed on 8 March 2015).

[3] Sources: National Electoral Committee (2015) “Upcoming elections in Estonia: 2015 Elections to the Riigikogu”, available at http://vvk.ee/general-info/ (accessed on 5 March 2015); Postimees (2015) “Emori värskeim uuring: Reform tõuseb, EKRE langeb”, published on 27 February 2015, available at http://poliitika.postimees.ee/3106367/emori-varskeim-uuring-reform-touseb-ekre-langeb (accessed on 5 Match 2015); Estonian Public Broadcasting (2015) “Center Party builds on lead in last polls before elections”, published on 23 February 2015, available at http://news.err.ee/v/politics/cd3ee213-c560-4aca-8601-1bd435bb44a5 (accessed on 5 March 2015).

[4] Aldrich, John H., Gelpi, Christopher, Feaver, Peter, Reifler, Jason, and Thompson Sharp, Kristin (2006) “Foreign Policy and the Electoral Connection”, Annual Review of Political Science, 9: 477-502. See also Holsti, Ole R. (1992) “Public Opinion and Foreign Policy: Challenges to the Almond-Lippmann Consensus”, International Studies Quarterly 36, 4: 439-466.

[5] Aldrich et al. (2006) “Foreign Policy and the Electoral Connection”.

[6] Aldrich et al. (2006) “Foreign Policy and the Electoral Connection”.

[7]Aldrich et al. (2006) “Foreign Policy and the Electoral Connection”.

[8] Frear, Thomas, Kulesa, Łukasz, Kearns, Ian (2014) “Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014: Policy Brief”, available at http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/medialibrary/2014/11/09/6375e3da/Dangerous%20Brinkmanship.pdf (accessed on 7 March 2015).

[9] Frear et al. (2014) “Dangerous Brinkmanship”; see also BBC (2014) “Estonia angry at Russia ‘ abduction’ on border”, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-29078400 (accessed on 7 March 2015).

[10] The Independent (2015) “’Russia’s growing threat’: After Ukraine, fears grow that Baltic states could be Vladimir Putin’s next targets”, published on 8 February 2015, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russias-growing-threat-after-ukraine-fears-grow-that-baltic-states-could-be-vladimir-putins-next-targets-10032378.html (accessed on 7 March 2015).

[11] The Independent (2015) “’Russia’s growing threat’”.

[12] Reuters (2014) “Latvia says Russia trying to use ‘provocateurs’ in Baltic state”, published on 24 April 2014, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/25/us-latvia-defence-idUSBREA3O1Q420140425 (accessed on 8 March 2015).

[13] Daily Telegraph (2015) “Putin will target the Baltic next, Defence Secretary warns”, published on 18 February 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/vladimir-putin/11421751/Putin-will-target-the-Baltic-next-Defence-Secretary-warns.html (accessed on 7 March 2015).

[14] See, for instance, Postimees (2015) “Meedia: Fallon soovitas tähelepanu pöörata Baltimaade julgeolekule”, published on 19 February 2015, http://maailm.postimees.ee/3096791/meedia-fallon-soovitas-tahelepanu-poorata-baltimaade-julgeolekule (accessed on 7 March 2015).

[15] Sikk, Allan (2015) “Estonia’s 2015 election result ensures the Reform Party will continue to dominate the country’s politics”, published on 4 March 2015, available at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2015/03/04/estonias-2015-election-result-ensures-the-reform-party-will-continue-to-dominate-the-countrys-politics/ (accessed on 7 March 2015).

[16] Eurostat (n.d.) “Real GDP growth rate – volume”, available at http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/table.do?tab=table&init=1&language=en&pcode=tec00115&plugin=1 (accessed on 7 March 2015).

[17] Eurostat (n.d.) “Real GDP growth rate – volume”.

[18] Statistics Estonia (2015) “In the 4th quarter the Estonian economy grew 2.7%”, published on 11 February 2015, available at http://www.stat.ee/90669 (accessed on 7 March 2015).

[19] Eurostat (n.d.) “Real GDP growth rate – volume”.

[20] Eurostat (n.d.) “Unemployment statistics”, available at http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Unemployment_statistics (accessed on 7 March 2015).

[21] Statistics Estonia (2015)”Unemployment decreased and employment increased in 2014”, published on 13 February 2015, available at http://www.stat.ee/90543 (accessed on 7 March 2015).

[22] Eurostat (n.d.) “Gini coefficient of equivalised disposable income (source: SILC)”, available at http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/table.do?tab=table&language=en&pcode=tessi190 (accessed on 7 March 2015).

[23] Eurostat (n.d.) “Gini coefficient”.

[24] Eurostat (n.d.) “Gini coefficient”.

[25] Sikk (2015) “Estonia’s 2015 election result”.

[26] Pierson, Paul (2003) “Big, Slow-moving… and Invisible: Macrosocial Processes in the Study of Comparative Politics” in Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences ed. by James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschemeyer, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 177-207.

[27] Holmgaard Andersen, Rune (2015) “Estonia election, 2015”, published on 2 March 2015, available at https://fruitsandvotes.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/estonia-election-2015/ (accessed on 9 March 2015); Sikk (2015) “Estonia’s 2015 election result”.

[28] One remarkable similarity is that the National Alliance, too, is a result of a merger of the older, more established national conservative party TB/LNNK and the more national radical party “Visu Latvijai” that initially was established as a nationalist youth club and only later transformed into a political party.

[29] After the 2010 elections one of the leaders of emerging coalition government argued against inclusion of the National Alliance in the coalition government as some of the party’s politicians had openly expressed “anti-semitic, homophobic, and even racist ideas”, see TVNETS (2010) “Pabriks: Koalīcijā nav vajadzīgi ultranacionālisti un radikāļi”, published on 25 October 2010, available at http://www.tvnet.lv/zinas/viedokli/351314-pabriks_koalicija_nav_vajadzigi_ultranacionalisti_un_radikali (accessed on 9 March 2015).

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