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Estonian Elections: Splits in the Centre Ground

On 3rd of March 2019, Estonia will hold parliamentary elections. This comes just a week after the nation celebrated the 101st year since its declaration of independence and also falls on the same day as the 1991 referendum on the restoration of independence.

To understand the upcoming elections, it is important to know that politics in the Baltic country are largely shaped by the Centre Party (K-ALDE) and the Reform Party (R-ALDE). The Reform Party is a classical liberal party, while the Centre Party is a populist ‘centrist’ party, largely backed by Russophone Estonians. Both are part of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament. The current Centre Party-led government was voted into power in 2016 following a vote of no confidence against the Reform Party-led government, which won the 2015 election.

Reform’s fall from power was tied to the fall of another political titan in the Estonian arena, Edgar Savisaar. Savisaar was once the leader of the Popular Front of Estonia, a quasi-political movement with the purpose of supporting the implementation of Perestroika and Glasnost, Gorbachev’s policies for reforming the USSR into a more politically and economically liberal state, in Estonia in the 1980s. Later, however, Savisaar turned more and more authoritarian and populist in his political actions. As leader of the Centre Party, he signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s party United Russia. The agreement still continues, however, it is currently frozen, which means that whilst no active visible cooperation between the parties exists, Centre is still counted in lists of allies to “United Russia”. His removal as Centre party leader just before the Estonian vote of no confidence in 2016 paved the way for the end of the exclusion of the Centre Party from Estonian government coalitions by other parties.

The upcoming election is the first one since 1999 in which the liberal Reform Party (R-ALDE) is not in government. However, opinion polls show that their short period in the wilderness of opposition will come to an end: a Turu-uuringute AS poll for the daily newspaper Eesti Pävaleht in January showed that a plurality of voters would favour a  coalition government between Reform and the Centre Party. This does not, however, mean that Reform itself is willing to go ahead with a coalition, given that the tensions between the two are far from over. However, alternatives to a Reform-Centre government are few, especially since Reform distanced itself from any cooperation with the national-conservative EKRE (ECR).

Ever since Centre has entered government, its support has been growing amongst Estonian-speaking voters. This is the demographic they have underperformed in historically. In addition to this, it seems like there has been little flight from the Russophone electorate, of whom around 70% still vote Centre. The Centre Party does struggle, however,  with mounting debt issues and corruption allegations amongst their officials on the local level, which may affect their electoral performance in the further course of the campaign.

One thing is certain: a government without at least one of these big ALDE-players in the Estonian political arena is at the moment virtually impossible.

The third biggest player in current polls is the national-conservative EKRE (ECR), which is well on the way to becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Estonian political arena. After the departure of Savisaar from the political area, EKRE has taken over the role of Estonia’s political boogeyman from Centre. The current strategy by other parties, most openly stated by Centre, Reform and centre-left SDE (S&D) is that of political isolation. EKRE, unlike the Centre under Savisaar or even Ratas, however, continues to grow in support among the youth with a poll by Turu-uuringute AS stating that about a fifth of the population between the ages of 18 to 34 supports the party. They do, however, start to face growing opposition with 48% of the electorate in December 2018 being absolutely certain that they would not vote for EKRE.

The centre-right Pro Patria Party (I-EPP) has been teetering on the edge of irrelevance for some time, however, it is likely that they are still going to make it into parliament. Having largely lost their liberal-conservative electorate to Reform and being effectively sieged by EKRE from the right has left them in a serious bind. The face-off between Pro Patria and EKRE has also ended up with the two in a competition of one-upmanship trying to prove which one is ‘more patriotic’. This is visible in their defence spending plans where Pro Patria promises 2.5% of GDP and EKRE promises 2.6% or their stances against the UN migration compact (which turned out to be little more than a storm in a teacup). Pro Patria has managed to steadily tilt themselves into crossing the electoral threshold of 5%, but it remains to see whether they will enter government given that their voters are the most unwilling to enter into government with Centre. In a manner of speaking it seems that both are competing who can sing “Porilaste marss” (a historic patriotic song) louder and the polls suggest that EKRE is doing it better.

The last remaining old player in the political arena is the centre-left SDE (S&D). Traditionally much weaker than the centre-left vote in other EU countries, the party is polling significantly lower than at the time of the no-confidence vote. The policy of additional alcohol and fuel excises have driven away voters and and not increased state revenue in any material fashion. Likewise, the SDE has seemingly abandoned their pivot to break the Centre’s monopoly on the Russian-speaking electorate. PÕXIT, a plan to abandon the use of oil shale (an industry largely centred in Ida-Virumaa a region with a largely ethnically Russian region), has scared away many Russophone voters from SDE. Their attempts at gaining support by opposing and confronting EKRE has also not paid off. SDE like many other European Social Democratic parties is struggling deeply with an identity crisis and it seems like they have not been more successful at nailing down support than their fellow Social Democrats in France or Germany.

The final party which is likely to enter parliament is Estonia 200 (E200-*). Similar to EKRE, they are trying to pitch themselves as political outsiders, which many of them – to their credit – are. When they started off as a party last year, it seemed like they were trying to pull off ‘an Estonian Macron’. However, the movement has become bogged down in the day to day political life as the poster scandal shows. This involved posters, without markings on it by any political party, splitting a tram stop in Tallinn in two, one for Estonians and Russians, which many saw as echoing apartheid. This action, which they themselves claimed was to push a spotlight on the ethnic tensions in the country,left many critics feeling that this was a purely politically calculated as an attempt to gain support as well as exposure. When E200 confessed to the poster action, they saw their support drop below the five-percent threshold for some time.

The rest of the political forces are at the moment of writing still marginal. The Free Party (EVA-*) is plagued by a failure to define their role on the political landscape and has greatly declined in comparison with the previous election. The Greens (EER-G/EFA) now face a competitor in the face of ERE (*) and given that electoral alliances between parties are illegal it’s impossible for them to run together.

The elections will take place on Sunday the 3rd of March with close to a million voters eligible to take part. Follow Europe Elects for continued coverage of Estonia as well as the rest of Europe on Twitter and Facebook.

Otto-Kristjan is a member of the Europe Elects team and a specialist in Eastern European politics