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What to watch in Estonia’s upcoming local elections

The 2021 Estonian local elections will be unprecedentedly fractured and may portend major changes to the small northern European nation’s electorate. Despite the rhetoric, most campaigns seek to address everyday concerns.

October 15, 2021 - Samuel Kramer - Analysis

The Tartu Town Hall Square. Photo: Arcady / Shutterstock

Following the major parliamentary votes in Germany, Canada and Russia, an equally critical vote approaches in October 2021: the Estonian local elections. The country’s swift transition to a digital society in the early 2000s made it a paragon of European integration; its tempestuous politics likewise typify the continent’s political uncertainty. As several major parties campaign for control of the 79 municipalities across the country, these are the factors and actors to watch.

The main players

There are a number of parties competing for seats in the upcoming elections who are likely to gain representation. The Reform Party, Centre Party, and the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) are the three giants in the field. Reform, founded In the early 1990s, represents the free market, pro-European outlook that defines Estonia. Its base of support comes from the Tallinn suburbs and the intellectual centre of Tartu. The Centre Party is nominally liberal, but has populist tendencies dating from its founder, Edgar Savisaar, who became a critic of the post-1991 Estonian political consensus. It draws support from the rural voters and urbanites in the capital Tallinn, as well as the Russophone-majority east. EKRE is a newcomer whose swift rise deserves special mention. EKRE, a national-conservative party, united many Eurosceptic and conservative elements in Estonia. It is competing with the Centre Party for the rural and Russophone voters while battling Reform for leadership of the right. These three parties have the highest opinion poll ratings, forming the likeliest coalition options.

Smaller parties likewise are making an impact on the local election. Estonia 200, a recently formed liberal party, appears to have learned from its initial foray into electoral politics. In 2019, a controversial poster campaign in Tallinn derailed its parliamentary bid, but it now polls just two points behind the leading Centre Party at 23 per cent. In the county capital of Viljandi, they formed an alliance with the Social Democrats, who became the largest party after the previous election but were shut out by a centre-right coalition. Small parties combined can redraw the municipalities’ political maps. The Greens, able to use their small size effectively in local coalition politics, turned the September mayoral debate in Tartu towards youth and social issues that they felt were underserved. Similarly, the Green’s influence is felt as many parties emphasized their commitment to green energy. The Centre Party-led Tallinn City Council runs the Roheline Pealinn (Green Capital) project, while the Tartu Social Democrats included in their platform a promise to “transform Tartu into a green city” by making environmentally-friendly transit and consumption easier. These parties may not control as many localities as Centre, EKRE or Reform, but the other parties’ voices will matter this year as a fractured electoral field and coalition talks appear on the horizon. They can tip the scales in favour of any of the three large parties, thereby controlling the elections’ outcomes.

The Rise of EKRE

The Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) is this election’s wild card. The national-conservative party is trying to expand its electoral range by appealing to like-minded Russian-speaking voters. Party leader Martin Helme is the mayoral candidate in Tallinn, standing in the Russophone-heavy Lasnamäe constituency, the capital’s most populous district. EKRE is making similar moves in Narva, forging local connections and inviting two Centre Party city councillors to cross the floor. The party conducted extensive outreach to Russophone Estonians by running Russian-language campaign material and including the May 9th Second World War commemorative march organiser Larissa Olenina in their ranks. 

Commemorating May 9th remains a symbolic divider in Estonian politics; while most ethnic Russians celebrate the Soviet Victory Day, many ethnic Estonians consider it the recommencement of Soviet occupation. EKRE’s outreach in embracing a major May 9th parade organiser thus became a significant action by the Estonian nationalist camp. This pays dividends on a regional level, as EKRE was named the most-popular party in Russophone-majority Ida-Virumaa. It even managed to earn 15 per cent of Tallinn voters support in a September 20th opinion poll, no small feat for a party hailing from the countryside and traditionalism. 

Outside the northern cities, EKRE was the first party to submit its candidate lists in Tartu, a sign it is prepared to contest other urban areas. The party has also recruited nationally-renowned politicians for its local campaigns, for instance selecting founder of Estonian foreign intelligence and former diplomat Ants Frosch as its Otepää mayoral candidate. The outreach to minorities, recruiting in large cities, and efficient campaigns elsewhere suggest that the national-conservative party could be a force to reckon with this election cycle. These moves display a certain electoral savvy and major pivot from previous controversial statements about Russophone citizens and their political values. Even EKRE’s rivals feel the need to acknowledge the party’s appeal. Former Narva mayor Alexei Evgrafov refused to associate with the party because he was “unprepared to tie myself to EKRE’s rhetoric” while admitting it was “closest to him,” suggesting a vestigial frisson remains when it comes to the outsider party.

The Centre Party’s struggles

For the first time in over a decade, the Centre Party faces serious challengers in its traditional strongholds and dissatisfaction from long-time voters. A scandal involving the Centre-led Tallinn City Administration forced Centrist Prime Minister Juri Ratas to resign, while news about potential embezzlement charges against the former minister of education further soured the public mood. The most recent polling, according to former National Electoral Committee chairman Alo Heinsalu, shows the Centre Party’s vote dropping below the threshold necessary for an absolute majority, something that last occurred 20 years ago.

In November 2020, the Centre Party proposed a coalition agreement with the Green Party, a sign that it expected electoral turbulence in upcoming vote – the Greens do not typically reach the electoral threshold necessary for seats, but the electoral calculus may change with the incumbents’ growing unpopularity. Equally concerning for the party is its former leader Edgar Savisaar’s campaign on an independent list for the Tallinn municipal council. The party nonetheless remains buoyed by a roster of prominent leaders, especially Tallinn mayor Mihhail Kõlvart who earned plaudits for ensuring Tallinn’s funding needs were met by the central government and is forceful in defending Russophone interests while maintaining good relations with ethnic Estonians. Despite the many challengers eager to acquire more power from the struggling potentate, Centre remains capable of fielding significant electoral force.

Narva’s government woes

Concomitant to the Centre Party’s search for electoral security, its eastern stronghold in Narva faced unprecedented changes of power – three mayors had been elected in a single year, each from different local coalitions formed by the breakup of the dominant Centre Party into separate factions. Since his election in 2019, Narva mayor Alexei Yevgrafov struggled with his predecessor Tarmo Tammiste for control of the city council. Tammiste claimed Yevgrafov worsened relations between the central government and the city, which relies on EU and national support. The turmoil escalated on November 11th 2020 when Yevgrafov was voted out by the city council in a motion of no confidence. An unlikely coalition of Centre Party members, Centrist splinter factions, and social democrats elected Katri Raik as the Narva’s first female mayor. She was unable to keep the parties’ goodwill for long, losing her post in an August 17th 2021 no confidence vote. 

Reform Party member Ants Liimets was elected mayor in September to replace Raik, but was expelled from the Reform Party on September 17th by its Ida-Virumaa County branch, which opposed his decision to accept the mayoralty. He remains a mayor without a party, dependent on a fractious coalition of lawmakers for support. At this point, five groups compete for power in the city: the Centre Party, Estonia 200 and EKRE, as well as electoral coalitions Long Live Narva and Our Narva, which former Mayor Katri Raik founded to contest the October elections. The city’s future is wide open, largely dependent on an ever-shifting constellation of local parties.

Economics

Amid the din of rival party platforms, money and municipal improvements are a common theme across the spectrum. Finances, especially support for small business in the wake of the 2020 coronavirus lockdowns, feature prominently in parties’ plans to “build back better”. The Tallinn municipal government proudly discusses the 26 million euro EU grant for building a new tramway line, a part of the Rail Baltica transport project’s budget. Some judge pocketbook issues to be a major impetus for citizens to vote in an “off-season” election. The Tartu city government expressed hope that the government’s participative budget and other democratising initiatives would encourage the public to vote on the budget and deciding the city’s future, building the foundation for greater public engagement in municipal life.

Concerns about the state of infrastructure similarly dominate most parties’ agendas, from the Tallinn Centre Party branch’s admission that the city must continue updating infrastructure to Tartu’s Reform Party Mayor Urmas Klaas unveiling the ambitious Tartu 2024 campaign for Europe’s capital of culture. City plans have regional implications – Tartu 2024 extends to neighbouring municipalities in South Estonia, ensuring equitable development and funding disbursement. Nationwide, the Rail Baltica project designed to connect Estonia with Latvia and Lithuania by train means the disbursement of millions of euros to municipalities located along the railway line, providing ample informational and campaign material for parties competing in affected municipalities. Transit and cultural facilities are only some of the projects debated during the election campaign. Education is a perennial concern for voters in Estonia, especially funding school infrastructure. Schools, which operate on the municipal level, will need to tackle coronavirus infections among students, potentially upgrading ventilation systems and monitoring student health.

The 2021 Estonian local elections will be unprecedentedly fractured and may portend major changes to the small northern European nation’s electorate. Despite the rhetoric, most campaigns seek to address everyday concerns. In its quotidian focus, the October vote may offer insights to European parties struggling to exit the ideological whirlpool and return to normalcy.

Samuel Kramer is a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews. He has a Bachelor’s degree from George Washington University and a Master of Arts from Georgetown University’s Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies. He specialises in minority rights in the post-Soviet space and their intersection with the democratisation process.

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