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Estonian Parliamentary Election: Return to Normality (Sort of)

The 5th of March 2023 marks polling day for the elections that are to deliver onto the world the 15th Parliament of the Republic of Estonia. With the ominous backdrop of the war in Ukraine and the ongoing cost of living crisis looming in the background, there are suggestions that the elections represent a paradigm shift in the northernmost Baltic state. Whilst undoubtedly true in more ways than one it also represents a return to a political normality shattered in 2016.

In order to understand the supposed paradigm shift, it is vital to understand what has changed. Contrary to the hopes of the other political forces in Estonia, the results of the 2019 elections saw parliamentary politics continue to be dominated by the confrontation between the more centre-left Centre Party (K-RE) and the more classical liberal Reform Party (R-RE). Despite sharing the same political family in the European Parliament and indeed cohabitating during this parliamentary period, the rivalry between Reform and Centre shaped the course of Estonian political discourse for more than a decade.

Now that Edgar Savisaar, the former long-time Centre leader, prime minister and man that once best portrayed the physical manifestation of this rivalry, has passed into history, both politically and physically, the end of the old rivalry seems to be at hand. Yet like with most changes, this has not come about through some grand blow but through slowly at a pace that one is unlikely to notice in their day to day lives.

The change in the narrative slowly began to take place, when the 2019 elections produced a result that made the continuation of the then slightly troubled coalition between Centre, the centre-right Isamaa (I-EPP) and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDE-S&D) impossible. The results of the election were a special disappointment to Centre, which had hoped to achieve victory at the polls as recognition for their continued pivot away from their less electorally appealing stances under Savisaar.

Due to its victory at the polls Reform was tasked with forming a government, however this would not come to be. Citing first political differences and later Reforms’ shopping around for partners, Centre would refuse to accept the invitation to coalition negotiations. Instead then publicly reach out to the right-wing Estonian Conservative People’s Party, (EKRE-ID) more commonly known by its shorthand EKRE, as well as its at that point coalition partner Isamaa.

The move was seen by many commentators as a betrayal of Centre’s pre-election statements to exclude EKRE from their list of potential coalition partners, a situation that Centre itself had experienced between 2007 and 2016. These negotiations would incite a firestorm in both local media and the European political arena, but result in no change of course. Reform would attempt to form a minority government with the Social Democrats on the 15th of April, but the attempt would fail, ushering in the Second Ratas Cabinet of K, EKRE and I just two days later.

The second Ratas cabinet would prove nothing short of tumultuous, not only due to the quite frequent political crises, primarily spawned by media amplification of statements and/or actions of ministers belonging to EKRE. But also as it was to face the first of the four horsemen of the 2020s—the one who rides the white horse or as we know it by its more common name, the coronavirus pandemic. A year after the elections, the second person had tested positive in Estonia and on 12 March, a most ominous date marking the 1934 self-coup of the then transitional State Elder Konstantin Päts, a state of emergency was declared.

Whilst the government would come under fire for its perceived overreaction during the first wave, it would also come under fire for its perceived underreaction during the second wave. The main culprit seen as responsible for both of these actions was of course EKRE. During all of this EKRE would continue its political tactic of remaining at the centre of public attention and although its polling numbers continued to stagnate even as party leadership passed from father to son, the narrative continued to change.

Thus even though the Ratas cabinet would officially come to an end due to a corruption crisis in Centre, it would be EKRE and its proposed referendum on recognising marriage as a union between a man and a woman that was seen as the real reason behind this governmental collapse. Despite or perhaps due to its removal from government EKRE would continue to have the initiative on the narrative. The grand coalition between Reform and Centre—the party whose corruption scandal had supposedly brought down the government—did little to help the narrative.

Slowly but surely EKRE would begin to draw in more and more of the protest voters that had been the bread and butter for Centre during the Savisaar era. The fact that the Centre continued to be assailed by corruption crises, its other bread and butter under Savisaar, also did not help its ratings or role in the narrative. This combined with disagreements over child benefits finally saw Centre itself fall from government as Estonia once again saw the return of a tripartite coalition of Reform, Isamaa and the Social Democrats.

The six years in government with all the parties represented in the current parliament have thus resulted in a paradigm shift for Centre. The upcoming elections are the first ones since 2007 in which Centre is, at time of writing, predicted not to achieve at least second place. Although its leader Jüri Ratas continues to bluster and suggest that the party would achieve at least 20 spots in the 101 seat parliament and that neither EKRE nor Reform would win from their continued public confrontation, the polling seems to disagree.

The current Europe Elects aggregation of Estonian polls suggests that Centre would achieve 17.5%, which would see the party dip below 20% for the first time since the 1999 elections. Although this is an improvement from the polling low in November of 2022 it shows a troubling trend for Centre. Only time will tell, whether the party will continue to haemorrhage support or whether Centre will be able to mend fences with its traditional voter base among the Russophone electorate and protest voters that have increasingly begun to look elsewhere as the party has become to be seen as a ‘party of government’.

In contrast to its old rival and in spite of the pressure from protest voters Reform continues to ride high. The second horseman of the 2020s, war, more specifically war in Ukraine, has in many ways seen the replication of the strong surge in support that the Estonian ‘traditional party of government’ experienced in 2014. The almost 10 percentage point bump in polling, after the outbreak of war, saw the party ratings pushed  into the stratosphere, at least as far as Estonian politics is concerned, and in a way marked the end of the first-era of the Estonian ‘two-party system’. Indeed for a moment it even seemed that the two-party narrative could be broken, as for a short period of time it seemed possible that Reform, EKRE and Centre could all struggle for dominance at relatively equal ratings. Now we once again see the return of the ‘two-party system’ in a new form.

EKRE now stands as the potential heirs to the position that Centre once held under Savisaar. Although now championing the cause of patriotic conservatism, as the party describes its worldview, rather than the Russophone public - it remains by far the closest approximation to the once boogeyman of Estonian politics. Whilst Reform, the Social Democrats as well as various other extra-parliamentary parties on the more socially liberal side of the political aisle continue to try and force the genie back into the bottle, it seems unlikely that EKRE would be forced under isolation in any way similar to that of Centre between 2007 and 2016. This is especially true, if support for the party continues to grow, as Centre and Isamaa both show little willingness to isolate the party that many among the public see as the voice of the socially conservative electorate.

Little has changed for Isamaa since the elections in 2019, as the party has continued  teetering on the edge of future electoral irrelevance for this parliamentary cycle. The expulsion of its internal faction that would go on to create the centre-right Right-wingers (P→EPP) has seen the party become much more openly conservative rather than the liberal-conservative party it became after its unification with Res Publica after which it wore the name Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica. During this parliamentary period it has largely played the role of a kingmaker and this has allowed the party to push through many of its key policies through parliament. Out of all the parties in the current parliament it is perhaps the only that has always gotten what it wanted from every coalition that it supported.

Despite its legislative successes, on the popularity front it has failed to beat or even keep up with EKRE. It has now been firmly relegated to the position of a second rank conservative party, as its history and numerous ties to the Estonian establishment make it an unattractive target for the protest voters that make up much of the more socially conservative electorate. Thus it seems that for time being Isamaa once again finds itself trying to cross the 5% electoral threshold to avoid relegation to the pages of history with its membership clinging onto the hope that they shall at some point in the future return from the position of kingmaker to king.

The Social Democrats, the last of the traditional parties, also finds itself in a difficult position. The party significantly underperformed in the 2019 parliamentary elections and the European Parliamentary elections in May were of little comfort either, despite the very good results. All this resulted in the resignation of the party chairman. The next party chairman would be tasked with a difficult soul searching mission and fortunately given quite a long time window to do so, even if on the national level the period was dominated by the then epidemiological concerns as well as the antics of EKRE.

The deadline for this soul searching mission would be the local elections in 2021. Although traditionally dominated by non-partisan electoral alliances, they provide data on grassroots support for parties on the local level. Thus the halving of support for the Social Democrats, who had by then spent two years in opposition in national politics, led to the downfall of the new party chairman and the election of yet another one tasked with getting the party in shape to cross the threshold in 2023. Declarations by heavy hitters choosing to not stand for re-election, including the previous chairman of the party and the mayor of Narva, seem to suggest the party may have entered a death spiral. Estonia finds itself now with no shortage of socially liberal parties, which may lead voters to ask what is the point of voting for the Social Democrats.

The party perhaps profiting most of the decline of the Social Democrats is Eesti 200 (E200→RE). Much like the last time around, the party continues to try and pitch itself as the political outsiders and at the same time experts with solutions to all the big problems that Estonia might experience over the next century. Although falling slightly short of the electoral threshold of five per cent in the parliamentary elections in 2019, the party would achieve a respectable result in the 2021 local elections. Particularly in the regions, where both Reform and the Social Democrats had previously taken a fair share of the vote.

However much like Centre, the party has been hurt significantly by the outbreak of war in Ukraine. The Estonian public, at least the socially liberal part, when faced with a choice of a strong and stable government with Reform or supposed reform and potential chaos with E200, seems to be willing to put their issues aside towards the traditional party of government at an ominous time such as this and support Reform rather than risk change with E200.

Despite a change in their number since the previous elections, the marginal political forces in Estonia still remain marginal. The Party for the Future (TULE-*), produced from the merger of the Free Party (EVA-*) and the Biodiversity Party (ERE-*), failed to result in a voter magnet and seems to be unable to reach agreement with the Greens (EER-G/EFA) to consolidate the green movement in Estonia. Although the latter is running in these elections the former hasn’t even bothered to do that. The Right-wingers likewise seem more like the product of ego and an unwillingness to consolidate with Estonia 200, a party with whom they share not only an ethos but also an attempt to claim to be political outsiders in the very heavily packed social liberal wing of Estonian politics. Finally, the Estonian United Left Party (EÜVP-LEFT) may have found a saviour from mandatory disbandment, as the party had fallen below 500 members, through its decision to compete in the elections together with the movement Koos/Вместе. The movement, claiming to stand for peace whilst repeating Russian talking points in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian War, had tried to form its own party for the elections but failed at the registration hurdle and thus reached out to EÜVP. This alliance between the de facto descendents of the Communist Party of Estonia and Russian conservatives, as the party chair described his new allies, is certainly not unexpected, but has at least thus far failed to attract much support.

The elections are taking place on Sunday 5 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.