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Riigikogu election – what lies ahead for Estonian democracy in 2019?

With just over a week to go before the first round of Estonia’s 2019 elections, the country’s political scene seems to remain unshaken, with the two largest parties likely to swap shares of their parliamentary seats. Potential electoral success for nationalists may, however, give them significant political leverage with which to shape a new coalition government.

February 21, 2019 - Adam Wylegalski - Articles and Commentary

Estonian parliament building, Tallinn. Photo: Stan Shebs (cc) wikimedia.org

As Estonians head to polling stations on March 3rd, the results of the nationwide vote in the Riigikogu (Estonia’s unicameral parliament) election are not likely to upset the current standing of the two largest parties. Public support for the Centre Party, a senior ruling coalition member, as well as its main competitor, the opposition Reform Party, has long hovered just below 30 per cent, with the oppositionists steadily challenging the incumbents’ position in the polls. According to party ratings issued by Tallinn-based research centre Turu-uuringute AS, both parties are well ahead of the rest of the contenders, respectively scoring 29 per cent and 24 per cent in December. The volatility of support is best exemplified in the January poll results, when the Centre Party scored 27 per cent compared to 26 per cent enjoyed by the reformists. A highly probable victory by either party notwithstanding, the Estonian political scene remains far from stabilised, with junior coalition parties struggling to maintain their positions in view of the rise of nationalists and other, less prominent challengers.

EKRE stirs things up

The current three-party coalition has been ruling the country since November 2016, when the government headed by Reform Party member Taavi Rõivas lost a no-confidence vote in the Riigikogu after a troublesome, drawn-out presidential election in 2016. This delivered a serious blow to the ruling coalition, as its Members of Parliament (MPs) failed to reach a compromise and back a common candidate for the presidency of the republic (in Estonia, the national president is elected by the country’s parliament), a dilemma which was further exacerbated by a series of rifts over administrative and socio-economic policies proposed by the liberals. A new government, headed by Jüri Ratas of the Centre Party, was formed with the conservative group Pro Patria and the Social Democrats, which had been junior coalition members since 2015.

With Centre as a leading force, Estonia took advantage of favorable economic trends, as was reflected in the legislation adopted at the end of 2016. The three-party coalition agreed on the plan to increase the tax exemption rate from 170 euros to 500 euros per month for taxpayers with wages below 1,200 euros (the national average salary). Their plan ultimately entered into force in January 2018. Furthermore, tax reforms included lowering corporate income tax on distributed profits from 20 per cent to 14 per cent and increasing Estonia’s attractiveness for potential investors in order to promote the country’s image as a business-friendly and high-tech-oriented environment. As a matter of fact, Estonia’s GDP grew by 4.9 per cent in 2017 despite a shortage of local labor. This was achieved, in part, by adopting an open-door policy aimed at bringing skilled professionals from other countries and relocating them to the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland. It resulted in the biggest population growth since Estonia regained independence in 1991. This, however, was met with much political uproar raised by growing nationalist voices in domestic politics.

As per December polls, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), the most prominent right-wing party, enjoyed the support of 12 per cent, making it the third-most popular party ahead of the upcoming Riigikogu election. Should such a result be repeated in the ballots, EKRE would significantly increase its presence in the parliament: it would nearly double the number of seats it holds, which currently stands at seven. Although the declaration made by Mart Helme, leader of the EKRE since 2013, to aim for 30 parliamentary seats may sound like a pipe dream, the nationalists’ electoral success seems imminent.

Estonian nationalists, just as many of their counterparts across Europe, strengthened their position in domestic politics on the heels of the migration crisis in 2015. By promoting a populist narrative built upon a binary opposition between “us” and “them”, EKRE capitalises on portraying itself as an anti-elitist, right-wing force committed to safeguarding the conservative values of the people against the establishment’s liberalism. It also seeks to demonize the EU’s purported interference in the domestic affairs of its member states. Helme’s comments following a terrorist attack in Strasbourg in December 2018, in which he put the blame for the tragic events on western governments’ acceptance of mass migration, seem to resonate well across a conservative part of Estonian society. This, coupled with EKRE’s staunch opposition toward the UN Global Migration Compact and propped up by a series of protests, helped the party to gain more publicity ahead of the upcoming election and thus snatch votes away from more moderate conservatives from Pro Patria, which has suffered a recent drop in the polls and continues its struggle to pass the electoral threshold.

EKRE’s rhetoric may have implications for the quality of public debate too, as shown by the incident at the rally organized by the party on November 26th. During a protest against the contested UN migration plan, EKRE’s supporters mauled Indrek Tarand, an independent MEP who broke onto the speaker’s podium and tried to address the gathering but was forced off the stage and kicked by one of the participants. What followed was a series of mutual accusations, with Tarand declaring that he would take the matter to court and EKRE’s representatives accusing him of provocative behavior and acting under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Although this may seem to be a minor incident, it was the first such escalation that occurred in Estonian politics in years.

Volatile support for newcomers

In view of declining support for some of the smaller parties such as Pro Patria and the liberal-conservative Free Party, some centre-right votes may be poached by Estonia 200, a new entity in the country’s politics that emerged as a joint initiative proposed by representatives of institutions of higher education and big business. Following the announcement of its manifesto in May 2018, the movement, headed by director of the University of Tartu’s Narva College Kristina Kallas, garnered 5.4 per cent in October and enjoyed a surge in support following its official registration as a political party in November, scoring at 8.5 per cent, according to survey results published by the Estonian daily Postimees.

Estonia 200’s success in the last months of 2018 turned out to be short-lived, however. The surge

in support, which could be credited to its proposal to switch the pre- and primary school education system from bilingual into Estonian-only in order to foster integration of ethnic minorities, especially country’s Russian speakers, helped it to win over a part of the conservative and centre-right electorate at the expense of the Pro Patria and Reform parties. However, following a controversial poster campaign launched on January 7th, when residents of Tallinn were met by several bold banners displayed at one of the city’s central tram stops stating “Estonians here” and “Russians here” in both languages and thus dividing it into zones based on ethnicity, many accused the party of trying to capitalise on escalating ethnic tensions. Although Kallas explained that such an action was meant to draw attention to the problem of segregation in Estonian society, it proved damaging to the party’s ratings, relegating it to the electoral threshold level in January.

Riigikogu election – what lies ahead?

In view of the rise of nationalists, either of the main political parties is set to face the challenge

of forming a multipartite coalition with a range of smaller parties which are likely to win seats in the new parliament. Despite internal conflicts over the UN Global Migration Compact, the current coalition managed to escape the fate of its predecessors, partly thanks to a good economic performance. However, current party ratings suggest that declining support for the Social Democrats and Pro Patria will make it difficult for the incumbents to secure an overall majority of seats. Furthermore, the recent stunt by Estonia 200 jeopardized its image as a reliable partner, even in case it passes the electoral threshold and joins coalition negotiations. Katri Raik of the Social Democrats argued during a radio interview for the public broadcaster ERR that the poster campaign played into hands of Russian propaganda channels, which likened it to apartheid measures and had a negative impact on the reputation of Estonia abroad.

On the other hand, if the Reform Party wins the election, Estonia 200 seems to be its natural partner to form a new government. This would require, however, coming to terms with other parties, especially the Social Democrats and Pro Patria, as the two largest parties already declared that they will not seek to engage with EKRE in coalition talks. Therefore, good electoral results for smaller parties will be a key factor in facilitating the formation of a stable government, as the nationalists will remain isolated.

Adam Wylegalski holds an MA degree in International Security from the University of Wroclaw, Poland, and MA degree in Democracy in Governance from the University of Tartu, Estonia. His research covers domestic politics of the Baltic states and Poland as well as issues related to security policies in post-communist space.

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