A general election to Estonia’s unicameral legislature, the 101-seat Riigikogu, was held on March 6. Estonia uses a modified form of d’Hondt in twelve multi-member districts across the country as well as a national level where all votes are averaged. The threshold for representation is 5%. Estonia is the only country in the world to use full online e-voting, and around 15% of voters cast their votes online before election day. E-voters tend to be significantly to the right of the broader electorate.
Estonia is also perhaps notable for the fact that the two largest party are both members of the same European political grouping, the liberal ELDR. The current government, led by Andrus Ansip, is led by the larger and more right-wing of the two, the Reform Party. Under Reform, Estonia has one of the most economically liberal (in the European sense of the term) governments in Europe. The Reform Party supports Estonia’s current flat tax and wants to further cut the flat tax below the 20% line (it is currently 21%, after plans to cut it to 18% were put on hold during the recession). It also supported cutting the VAT, but ended up raising it slightly during the recession. Estonia weathered the recession better than its Baltic cousins and though it isn’t a particularly wealthy country by EU standards it does have one of the EU’s lowest deficits and has one of the EU’s best GDP growth rates as of late. Unemployment, roughly 10%, is high. The government’s fiscal prudence allowed Estonia to become the first of the three Baltic countries to adopt the Euro, doing so on January 1 of this year. Adoption of the Euro required some significant fiscal measures which have been criticized.
Further to the left but still a broadly “liberal” party is the Centre Party (KESK) which emanated from the Popular Front of Estonia, the leading force in the 1990 Estonian independence movement. Led by Tallinn mayor and former Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar, KESK is widely disliked by all the other parties. It isn’t because of its platform, which is largely non-offensive vaguely centre-left stuff: progressive income tax and the like. It’s rather because of Savisaar’s reputation for being a corrupt political boss running a municipal administration rife with cronyism and nepotism and most importantly for KESK’s close ties with the Russian community. Estonia has a Russian minority which accounts for roughly 25-30% of the population (it is higher in Tallinn and in the northeast near Russia), but roughly 30% of them don’t have Estonian citizenship and thus don’t vote in national elections. Estonia having been a hotbed of resistance to Soviet domination, the Russian issue has been a permanent issue and Estonia has gotten scolded by the EU in the past for its minority policy though it’s nowhere as bad as it used to be. Most Russians vote heavily for KESK. However, to make matters worse, Savisaar is widely accused on playing up ethnic tensions to win Russian votes and has a more or less well-known alliance with Putin’s United Russia. Last year, KESK got rattled for having asked for campaign contributions from a Russian company, an incident which further isolated it politically. If Savisaar is dumped – and there is an anti-Savisaar faction in KESK, then perhaps KESK will become more acceptable.
Reform’s current coalition partner is the Union of Pro-Patria and Res Publica (IRL), a right-wing party founded by the 2006 merger of Pro Patria Union and Res Publica. It took a significant drubbing in the 2007 elections, fall out from the unpopular Res Publica government of Juhan Parts in office between 2003 and 2005. It is a broadly right-wing party mixing neoliberalism (balanced budget, low taxation and the like) with weird populism such as increased retirement pensions for widows and mothers.
The only left-wing force are the Social Democrats (SDE) who are not of a very left-wing type. During the 1990s they cooperated easily with the right, running common slates with right-wingers between 1992 and 2003 before finally adopting a social democratic identity in 2004, although SDE was in Ansip’s coalition between 2007 and 2009. Their new leader, Sven Mikser, is from the Centre Party and despite some opposition to Reform’s economic policies it would quite like to govern with them again. The left is permanently weak in Estonia, due in no small part to its communist history which has led to a widespread repulsion of anything openly left-wing as a foreign occupier.
The two smaller parties are the agrarian right-wing People’s Union of Estonia (ERL) who are the only ones to tolerate KESK, and the ephemeral Greens (of a centre-right variety). Here are the results:
Reform 28.6% (+0.8%) winning 33 seats (+3)
KESK 23.3% (-2.8%) winning 26 seats (-3)
IRL 20.5% (+2.6%) winning 23 seats (+4)
SDE 17.1% (+6.5%) winning 19 seats (+9)
Greens 3.8% (-3.3%) winning 0 seats (-6)
ERL 2.1% (-5%) winning 0 seats (-6)
Buoyed by Ansip’s popularity, Reform gained votes as did IRL and SDE while the Centre lost seats and the Greens and ERL were thrown out of parliament. IRL has seemingly moped up the ERL’s old base in Jõgeva County. KESK managed to dominate, basically, only in Tallinn and in Russian-majority Ida-Viru County where it 55% of the vote (a Russian party took only 4%).
The current Reform-IRL government wins a majority, with 56 seats (it had 50 seats, so it was a technical minority) and a Reform-SDE also has a majority with 52 seats. The Social Democrats noted that differences between Reform’s prudent fiscal policy and the IRL’s more populist policy on issues such as pensions could mean that Ansip will be looking for a new partner, and the SDE seems ready to fill that role again. No matter what, though, Andrus Ansip will remain as Prime Minister and Savisaar could find himself on the way out after a rather poor showing, KESK’s worse in some years. These results could be interpreted to mean that Estonia’s political system is stabilizing, as no party saw spectacular gains or loses and no new party emerged for the first time since independence. Furthermore, perhaps SDE’s historic high result means that a left-wing party of significant power could be a possibility in the long run.