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Estonia’s urban-rural divide: Cracks at home become a chasm abroad

Many saw Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’ victory in Estonia’s recent election as a win for European liberalism in challenging times. Despite this, the country’s urban and rural areas are now divided more than ever. This result reflects a wider, continental trend.

June 14, 2023 - Samuel Kramer - Articles and Commentary

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaking at the Into the Woods Seminar in 2022. Photo: Stina Virkamäk. Finnish Government on Flickr.com

Estonia’s March 2023 parliamentary election produced a remarkable result, with incumbent Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’s Reform Party achieving a 37-majority. This represents the second-largest majority for any party since 1991. Its main competitor, the more Russia-friendly Centre Party, lost over half of its seats, replaced by the far-right Conservative People’s Party as the main opposition. Yet it is too early to declare that Reform’s liberalism has defeated its populist and far-right rivals. Some commentators claimed Centre’s loss stemmed from its traditional Russian-speaking voting base not showing up at the polls. Data shows this is not the case. In contrast, Russophone turnout increased, with Centre losing due to a seismic shift in the rural electorate. This change could well shape Estonian and European politics far into the future. As a result, the liberal camp won the elections but faces a growing rural right.

The Centre electorate’s dual nature: Rural and Russophone

Centre’s two major support bases, Russian speakers and rural voters, chose different paths in the 2023 elections. Traditionally, an absolute majority of Russian speakers backed the Centre Party, gravitating to its charismatic leader Edgar Savisaar. He manoeuvred between opposition to economic and political reforms and pragmatic cooperation with any party. Russophones disproportionately lost privileges and jobs under the 1990s market reforms, which promoted the Estonian start-up culture. Due to this, they rewarded the statist “Iron Edgar” with 70 per cent support in a 2019 opinion poll. However, Savisaar’s successor, Juri Ratas, tried to reposition the party towards the political mainstream, accepting NATO membership and market reforms. He forged two coalitions, one with two mainstream parties and a second with the far-right EKRE party to become prime minister. Since then, the Centre-EKRE coalition and its subsequent scandals disillusioned Russophone voters. Ratas ignominiously resigned in 2021 following a corruption scandal which engulfed his cabinet. Two years later, the party earned only 15 per cent of the vote and lost ten seats, almost half of its total of 26 from 2019.

Does this mean, though, that Russophone voters stayed home? The answer, unequivocally, is no. A look at Russophone-majority electoral districts shows increased turnout. Ida-Viru County, which is majority Russophone, saw turnout grow from 48.2 per cent in 2019 to 53.1 per cent in 2023. In the capital, Tallinn, 69.7 per cent of voters showed up, compared to 66 per cent four years earlier. Even where Centre lost majorities, it retained pluralities. While Centre fell short of the previous election’s result of 50.7 per cent, it still earned a plurality in Ida-Viru County (7,621 votes or 25.8 per cent). This first-place finish suggests Russophone voters did not stay home and did vote partly for Centre. 

The radicalisation of the rural voter

Instead of deeming Russophone displeasure the sole explanation for Centre’s decline, analysts must turn to Centre’s other supporters for answers: rural voters fearful of the cities’ economic liberalism. The Centre Party has conducted an immense outreach campaign to farmers for over a decade. It even set up a Farmers’ Congress in 2010. The countryside, however, has not flourished under Centre’s patronage. Rural areas face economic depression. Despite containing 32 per cent of the population, according to the European Union, “in 2018, the revenue of the sub-national public sector [meaning municipal administrations, which are overwhelmingly rural] reached to EUR 2,059 million, representing 7.9 per cent of the country’s GDP and 20.3 per cent of total public sector revenue (EUR 10,162 million).” Rural Estonia’s economic output thus does not correspond with its demographic size.

While the 1990s economic reforms increased average wealth, not all regions prospered equally. When state-owned collective farms were privatised, the average farm size shrank from 24.8 hectares in 1994 to 21.7 four years later. More worrisome was the fact that the number of agricultural enterprises simultaneously dropped from 1,013 to 803 – a decline of 21 per cent. As the economy shifted to technology and services, money flowed away from the industry and farming which defined rural Estonia. By the 21st century, economic activity was concentrated in Estonia’s cities, especially Tallinn. A 2019 PricewaterhouseCoopers report claimed both Harju (bordering Tallinn) and Tartu counties accounted for 44 per cent and 11 per cent of all real-estate transactions, respectively. Moreover, 50 per cent of the start-ups created in Estonia are in Harju County (9.5 per cent of Estonia’s landmass) alone. Greater Tallinn’s economic prowess manifests in rural communities’ depopulation. A 2021 Friedrich Ebert Foundation report found that “shrinking regions with socioeconomic problems”, corresponding to rural Estonia, saw outmigration of 28.9 per 1,000 inhabitants. In contrast, the richest eight municipalities, mostly in Harju and Rapla counties, had an internal migration balance of 92.3 per 1,000 inhabitants. A 2023 survey by Estonia’s internal and social affairs ministries concluded that “poor quality or availability of public services” were among “the reasons people are leaving”.

Policy decisions made in Tallinn over the last three decades exacerbated rural areas’ economic isolation. The county governments’ abolition in 2017 left non-urban locales with less control over their affairs. Controversy over a government-enforced reduction in the felling of timber, a major industry in rural Estonia, reasserted a division between the pro-logging countryside and the technology-centred capital. Other coalition decisions, like a rise in value-added tax (VAT) and a proposal to end free local bus services primarily affect Estonians living outside the major urban areas of Tallinn and Tartu.

On a fundamental level, Estonia’s Tallinn-centric, digital turn warps the rest of the country’s well-being. Social Democratic Minister Madis Kallas acknowledged that “Over the last 30 years, life has become concentrated in Harju County, due to jobs, housing, and business.” Service quality between town and country differs. In 2022, 89 per cent of Estonian rural households had internet, compared to 94 per cent of urban households. That limits adaptability to new programmes. Surveys found that “many rural inhabitants use standing orders or settle their accounts in cash,” indicating non-urban communities found the rise of e-banking and the transition to digital accounts difficult. Municipal governments could foster development but lack funds. They remain highly dependent on taxed income. The EU’s Committee on the Regions reported in 2018 that “More than half of the total income of cities and rural municipalities consists of the personal income tax paid by their residents.” Depopulation through migration to Tallinn thus denies rural municipalities the funds they need to maintain communities and foster a sustainable economic climate. Estonian society’s pivot to Tallinn left the Estonian countryside without capital, without local talent, and without revenues necessary to rebuild.

Enter the far right

Regional setbacks fuelled anxieties and support for populist rhetoric among rural voters. The Estonian Forestry Association’s CEO told the Postimees newspaper in 2023, “People living in the countryside make up a significant part of the Estonian electorate, but they are not seen or heard from Toompea lately.” The Centre Party initially used agricultural discontent to gain votes. One 2010 Farmers’ Congress organiser declared, “The Centre Party is the largest political party in Estonia representing the interests of the middle class, which is why it has a duty to stand up for the sustainability of rural life and agriculture.” Attention to the countryside paid dividends: in the 2015 elections, according to Estonian observers, “the result (number of votes and share of total votes cast in the district) improved in as many as six [electoral] districts dominated by Estonian voters.” Since Russophones largely reside in urban areas, the “districts dominated by Estonian voters” largely refer to rural locales.

Since its 2012 founding, the radical-right Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) has positioned itself as the defender of rural Estonia. The party’s official history directly links it to previous agricultural-interest parties – the People’s Union and Countryside People’s Union. EKRE campaigned consistently “against Tallinn”. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, EKRE built a base of support in rural Pärnu County. By 2020, polling showed EKRE was the largest single party in the countryside, with 29 per cent support. Centre gained only 17 per cent support from rural voters. In early 2023, before the parliamentary elections, the EKRE-aligned news portal Uued Uudised pointed out that a political compass quiz issued by the Estonian Farmer’s Association favoured their party.

The post-2021 elections displayed EKRE’s growing influence in the countryside. In the 2021 local elections, EKRE doubled its vote share from 6.7 per cent to 13.2 per cent nationwide. EKRE won the most seats in the non-urban Järva, Põlva and Räpina municipalities. It was in the 2023 elections, however, that EKRE’s rural base truly came into its own. In polling and the final vote tally, Reform won pluralities in the cities outside of Russophone-majority Ida-Viru County. Tallinn’s three electoral districts, the Harju and Rapla County suburbs, as well as Tartu City, all returned Reform Party pluralities of at least 30 per cent. As noted before, Centre retained a toehold only in Ida-Viru County. The six remaining districts, mostly rural, tell a different story. Centre’s losses changed the parties’ configuration. In the table below, five mostly rural counties show correlation between EKRE increases and Centre Party stagnation or collapse, particularly in the results from Põlva, Valga, Võru and Pärnu counties.

Source: VVK (Estonian Electoral Commission) 

Centre’s defeat means that thousands of voters rejected them as advocates. EKRE, meanwhile, cemented its position as the main opposition to Reform despite county-specific losses. The far-right party is likeliest to fill the vacuum opened by Centre’s decline.

Indeed, before the electronic vote was tallied, EKRE surged ahead based on its rural vote strength. The 2023 elections saw an unprecedented 51 per cent voting online. Before polls opened, surveys predicted a comfortable Reform victory. But at 9:45 on election night, before the electronic votes came in, EKRE led with 26.8 per cent of the vote to Reform’s 19.4 per cent. Live update maps showed large swathes of the countryside returning EKRE majorities. Only Tartu, the northern Estonian coast, and Hiiu island were in non-EKRE hands. By 11:30, the electoral commission added electronic votes, revealing a Reform victory. Even so, EKRE’s influence on the countryside manifested itself. The southern county municipalities remained EKRE country.

Source: Delfi 

The partisan divide is a digital one as well. Two-thirds of Reform voters cast ballots online, while only a third of EKRE’s did. The discrepancy between paper and electronic voting results gave far-right politicians a platform to inveigh against their opponents and mobilise the base. It enabled EKRE to claim voter fraud despite party leader Martin Helme urging supporters to eschew it on election day. After the election, EKRE-aligned newspapers amplified distrust and concerns about the electronic vote. The party carried this mentality into parliamentary governance, as it gained the prerogatives of the official opposition. Martin Helme termed the parliament’s legitimacy “incomplete”. In this vein, the party obstructed legislative proceedings and disrupted speakers in the parliament. These antics struck a nerve with a disillusioned populace. Polling reflects a rise in EKRE’s popularity; as of May 2023, EKRE is tied with Reform for first place.

EKRE’s surge comes aided by Reform’s policy decisions that reflect a Tallinn-centric worldview. Despite a campaign promising not to raise taxes, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas increased VAT. Reductions in subsidies like free bus travel mentioned earlier seem likely to happen. Amid the highest inflation in the European Union, Reform’s policies hit hard, particularly affecting those distanced from Estonia’s profitable service and technology sectors. EKRE, the evergreen populists, thus have an opportunity to step in and promote their radical policies as a panacea for voters facing economic instability. The party’s parliamentary tantrums simply underscore its anti-establishment image and do little to dissuade voters already dissatisfied with societal norms. Pollster Aivar Voog’s findings confirmed EKRE “has risen thanks to floating voters, often from an older, small town or rural demographic as well as … a less educated and less well remunerated one.” Who else competes with EKRE and Centre on the rural platform? The other right-wing opposition party, Isamaa, hampered by the fact its chairman Helir-Validor Seeder “led it into a smaller and smaller niche”, is unable to expand its support base. This leaves the far right unchallenged. Buoyed by an analogue, disaffected rural population, EKRE gave itself a mandate to act out.

Conclusion: Dire implications for Europe

Estonia’s stagnating rural districts shifted from supporting the Centre Party to becoming potential EKRE strongholds. Prime Minister Kallas’s early popularity is waning due to tax hikes and perceived aloofness from ordinary Estonians, feeding a new round of populist sentiment. This pattern is playing out across Europe as established leaders struggle to reconcile rising economic difficulties with sustainable, democratic policies. Most notably in France, President Emmanuel Macron faced protests from the “young, precarious, and rural” gilets jaunes movement when he raised gas taxes in 2019 – a hike disproportionately felt by auto-centric rural France. In the 2022 general elections, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen earned over 60 per cent of the vote in 6,500 townships. As in Estonia, Macron and his liberal allies won electorally, earning 57 per cent of the vote. The decisive victory masks grave dissatisfaction, marked by an unprecedented 15 per cent abstention rate. In that year’s local elections, 83 rural municipalities elected a far-right mayor for the first time. As a result, President Macron’s liberal vessel may founder on the countryside’s hostile shores. 

Another European state, Hungary, already experiences rural-backed populist hegemony. Since 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party has governed with an absolute parliamentary majority and few institutional checks on its authority. Disaffection with the Socialist Party’s corruption provided the opportunity for Orban to promote countryside-friendly policies. Due to this, he implemented economic policies designed to foster a rural support base. From 2008, under the Socialist Party, due to overreliance on foreign currency loans and the global financial crisis, “the housing market has stopped functioning in rural areas.” In 2011, Prime Minister Orban allowed households to clear 26 billion US dollars in foreign currency denominated mortgages and levied a profit tax on banks. In 2022, 223,000 Hungarian citizens – equivalent to 2.6 per cent of that year’s parliamentary election turnoutdepended on municipality mayors for public employment, which augments traditional welfare programmes. With the election seen as too close to call before Orban’s surprise victory, these voters might have determined the margin of victory.

The Fidesz party consolidated power through a gerrymandered system disproportionately favouring rural constituencies. A combination of individual districts and list seats enables Fidesz to retain a majority even when it drops below 50 per cent of votes. Fidesz won 90.6 per cent of single-member districts in 2014 despite earning only 43.55 per cent of the popular vote. A 2012 Oxford-published study noted that the regional and local administration sector had the highest political party (namely Fidesz) patronage. Fidesz’s attention to the countryside is reciprocated. According to Pew polling that year, “In cities and urban areas, 44 per cent approve of their prime minister, compared with 58 per cent in suburban or mixed regions and 69 per cent in rural areas.” In the 2014 and 2018 parliamentary elections, municipalities with under 5,000 people voted 50 to 70 per cent for Fidesz, compared to 40 to 50 per cent in bigger cities. Even opposition unity in 2022 failed to break Fidesz’s rural empire.

This example is by far the most critical for Estonian democrats because Hungary and Fidesz have close ties to Estonia. In a 2019 meeting with Prime Minister Orban, the then-EKRE President and Interior Minister Mart Helme acknowledged that “his party looks upon Hungary and the V4 [Visegrád 4 – a partnership between Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia] cooperation as a model as these countries represent very important European core values during the debates on the continent’s future.” By extension, Fidesz’s rural politics influence the Estonian far right, and vice versa.

Hungary’s descent into illiberalism underscores how studying the politics of small nations remains important. Estonia provides a window onto governance’s large, complex processes. The centralising urbanisation of economic and social life creates greater distortions than in larger countries with several regional centres. Like France and Hungary, Estonia had decades of economically liberal, urban rule, which alienated the countryside and created inroads for populists. Economic relief came with the concentration of power. At this point, Estonia and Hungary represent two different stages of populism’s consolidation. Estonia, with its demographic divide and fiercely contested elections, marks populism’s ascent, while Hungary’s rural-centred party dominance represents its apogee. With solutions not in sight, the socio-economic warning lights in Estonia and wider Europe are now flashing red.

Samuel Kramer is a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews. He served as an Estophilus Fellow from 2021 to 2022 at the University of Tartu. Mr. Kramer earned 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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