Estonia continues on a pro-Western course

Liisa Talving

The 2015 Estonian general elections saw a close battle between the ruling Reform Party and the leading opposition force, the Centre Party. With pre-election polls predicting similar results for both parties, voters decided to back the incumbents in elections that initially focused on economic issues but in reality ended up being over-shadowed by popular concerns over national security. Tightening the race for the old players, two small parties succeeded in entering the political arena. The fact that six parties secured seats in the national parliament led to a more proportional representation of voters in the Estonian legislature.

E-voting continues to spread 

A total of 64.2% of eligible voters in Estonia turned out to cast their votes in the seventh parliamentary elections since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. For the first time, more people decided to cast a ballot during the pre-election period than on polling day on Sunday March 1st raising the question of whether to expand campaign restrictions to a longer period of time than only on an actual election day. The popularity of ‘pre-elections’ can be attributed to remote electronic voting with nearly one-third of participants now casting their votes online. In 2005, Estonia became the first country in the world to have state-wide local elections where voters could cast ballots over the Internet and since then eight ‘e-enabled’ elections have been held. As Figure 1 shows, the proportion of e-voters has increased steadily in each subsequent election of a similar type. Over the past decades, the diffusion of e-voting has taken place in Estonia. Initially a small distinct group of people, e-voters have now become less and less distinguishable from regular paper ballot voters, indicating that people have simply changed their means of voting (Vassil et al. 2014).

Figure 1: Share of e-voters of all participating voters in elections in Estonia

Figure 1: Share of e-voters of all participating voters in elections in Estonia

Source: Estonian Electoral Committee

The election campaign focused primarily on domestic economic issues. However, the topic remained largely incomprehensible to voters, and concerns over national security emerged as the key theme of the elections. The Pro Patria and Res Publica Union managed to move the topic of taxation to the centre of the pre-election political debate. The economy remained a prominent matter in the public eye after sharp austerity measures were introduced to cope with the consequences of the economic crisis that hit Estonia hard. However, topics like tensions in Greece have remained distant for the Estonian voter, hence EU issues did not appear salient in the campaign which rather revolved around domestic economic matters. But by concentrating on taxes, Pro Patria shifted the focus away from defence issues which the party was typically associated with. This enabled the governing Reform Party, despite historically not having ownership of this issue, to successfully adopt the image of a leading expert on security. The Reform Party’s conservative rhetoric worked amid the country’s on-going anxiety over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Fears over Russia’s potential moves to destabilise the Baltic States are widespread in Estonia where a quarter of the population are ethnic Russians. The Estonian authorities and media expressed significant discontent over the fact that the EU did not react quickly or strongly enough to Russia’s military invention in Ukraine. The expectations of both the EU and NATO are high in terms of their role in preserving the stability in the region. Sanctions were largely applauded, even though they brought with them challenges to local businesses in terms of restricting trade with Russia.

Victory for incumbents amid security concerns

Pre-election polls predicted a tight contest between the two major actors, occasionally showing a narrow lead for the governing Reform Party and then for the opposition Centre Party. As Table 1 shows, the incumbent party won an Estonian parliamentary election for the third consecutive time securing 27.7% of the votes and 30 seats in parliament. In addition to addressing security issues effectively, the Reform Party benefited from changes in the composition of the government just two months before the May European Parliament (EP) elections last year. Strategically replacing their long-time coalition partner, the centre-right Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, with their ideological rivals, the Social Democrats, only a year before the parliamentary poll enabled the ruling party to clean up their incumbent image and led to its success in the two subsequent elections. Both junior coalition partners, on the other hand, lost voter support. Reform’s internal party cleansing was another canny pre-election manouvre. Former party leader and prime minister Andrus Ansip resigned to join the European Commission and was replaced by Taavi Rõivas who, at 35, was the youngest head of a government in Europe and provided a breath of fresh air for a longstanding dominant political force which had suffered from severe scandals over party funding.

Table 1: Results of the 2015 parliamentary elections in Estonia

Party Vote % Seats in parliament Change in seats from 2011
Estonian Reform Party 27.7 30 -3
Estonian Center Party 24.8 27 +1
Social Democratic Party 15.2 15 -4
Pro Patria and Res Publica Union 13.7 14 -9
Estonian Free Party 8.7 8 +8
Estonian Conservative People’s Party 8.1 7 +7
Others 1.8
Total 100 101
Turnout 64.2 (+0.7% from 2011)

Source: Estonian Electoral Committee

The fundamental rivalry between the Reform Party and the Centre Party was the focus of attention in the fortnight running up to election day with the former advertising its pro-Western beliefs and the latter failing to publicly dis-approve of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The even poll numbers led to Reform alarming voters about their opponent getting too close to victory, which helped the incumbents to mobilize their supporters. The social centrist opposition party obtained most of its votes from Russian speakers and, against the backdrop of ethnic divisions among the population following the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, appeared to lose touch with its Estonian voters. Nevertheless, the Centre Party achieved a decent result being the only one of four parliamentary parties who managed to increase their share of seats (up one seat to 27). Party leader Edgar Savisaar had a remarkable result gathering the largest number of votes (25,055) that anyone had ever obtained in an Estonian general election since the country re-gained its independence. The Centre Party owed its success to a number of strong candidates, although many of the most successful acted purely as vote-magnets for the party and had no intention of giving up their current positions in order to become MPs. These included Mr Savisaar himself, who is Mayor of Tallinn, his Deputy Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (10,996 votes) and MEP Yana Toom (11,574 votes). Moreover, the Centre, which has ties with Vladmir Putin’s United Russia party, only has a strong position in two regions, Tallinn and Eastern Estonia, where the concentration of Russian-speakers is high, and once again remained in the ‘second division’ as far as national politics was concerned.

New political forces emerge 

Two parties were labelled as the losers of the 2015 elections. The Social Democrats (down four seats to 15) were thought to have suffered from their decision to enter the government just one year before the elections. Being the Reform Party’s junior coalition partner meant taking joint responsibility for some decisions that their traditional supporters may have not have approved of. Furthermore, the Social Democrats failed to fulfill their potential in drawing votes from the Estonian Russian-speaking community, an electorate they were desperately trying to seize. The national conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union saw the most notable decline in voter support (down nine seats to 14) and, as a result, faces a change in party leadership. Being in opposition after switching governing places with the Social Democrats could have been an opportunity to bolster the party’s image but the previous three years in the coalition did not leave it in a position strong enough to confront the incumbents, so the party was left to play the role of a bitter by-stander. Internal divisions and an incorrectly focused campaign targeting low-income voters instead of its traditional intellectual core supporters added further confusion and unambiguity to the party’s campaign. Attempts to boost the party’s support by recruiting well-known public figures, such as journalists and TV presenters, did not bring the expected results either.

Although the true vote-switching dynamics can only be un-masked when analysing post-election surveys, both of the losing parties were thought to have surrendered a part of their votes to two newcomers: the Free Party (8 seats) and the Conservative People’s Party (7 seats). Two fringe parties stepping into the political arena and passing the 5% electoral threshold for the first time in years was one of the leitmotifs of the 2015 elections and a clear indication of Estonian voters’ yearning for freshness. The Free Party is closest to the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union on the political spectrum but also shared a fair amount of crossover with the Social Democrats. A combination of independent intellectuals together with former Pro Patria members, the party stood for a more open governing system against the current domination of the four establishment parties, but was criticized for not having a clear and consistent ideology.

Another newcomer, the Conservatives, were not a new party on the Estonian political landscape but only witnessed marginal support up until now. The rise of the right-wing Conservatives, similar to those seen in other European countries, was not motivated by the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ events in France but was rather a reaction to recent heated debates over the introduction of a partnership law in Estonia which allowed same-sex couples to legalise their partnerships and receive similar benefits to married couples. The topic created ideological divisions among the population and enabled the Conservatives to rally support among the majority who disapproved of the draft act. The anti-immigration, anti-EU and anti-Russian Conservative party has already gained attention in a scandal over one member’s blog post praising the positive sides of Nazi Germany and the far-right activities of its youth movement.

The triumphant Reform Party opened up negotiations to establish a majority in the 101-seat parliament and form a new government. Excluded from the talks were Reform’s two main ideological rivals: the opposition Centre Party and the radical right-wing Conservatives. The new coalition will comprise either three or four members, providing the main governing party with a stronger position compared with its smaller negotiation partners. While the growth in the number of parties in the parliament and cabinet boosted representation, various analysts expressed scepticism about the longevity of the new alliance, arguing that history provided no examples of such a diverse coalition surviving the entire four-year electoral term in Estonia. The inclusion of the Free Party, with its high inner heterogeneity and no previous parliamentary experience, added to these concerns. Nonetheless, the primary course of the new government is likely to be maintaining a stable course both in economic and security policy.

Liisa Talving is a doctoral candidate in comparative politics at the Institute of Government and Politics, University of Tartu.

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