On Sunday 1 March Estonia held regular parliamentary elections. The Reform Party of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas, which has dominated the country’s political scene for the last decade, once again managed to win the election. Yet as both the Reform Party and its coalition partner, the Social Democrats, lost several seats, they will now have to look for another party to stay in power – potential options include a revival of the cooperation with the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) together with which they held power between 2007 and 2009 and the newcomer ‘ Free Party’.
The topics of the election campaign were dominated by the Ukraine crisis and economic issues. The Reform Party, the Social Democrats as well as the IRL were particularly keen to stress the former as well as their commitment to NATO and EU. This was not only due to the general salience of the issue among voters, but also in order to distance themselves (and discredit) the Centre Party. The party is generally considered ‘ Russia-friendly’ and the main, albeit unofficial, representation of Estonia’s ethnic Russians. Despite the unwillingness of the Centre Party’s leader, Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar (who has led the party since the early 90’s), to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine/Crimea the party came head-to-head with the Reform Party in the latest polls and eventually even gained a seat. Nevertheless, the Centre Party is regularly shunned by other parties (quite similar to the Harmony Centre in Latvia) and has no chance of participating in the new government. The Centre Party also differed from other parties by vocally opposing the current 20% flat tax system – although the Social Democrats also called for a progressive tax system, they are more likely to give up these demands if it means that they can stay in government.
After only four parties were represented in the last parliament, two new parties now entered the Riigikogu – the liberal-conservative ‘Free Party’ and the national-conservative/populist ‘Conservative People’s Party’ winning and eight and seven seats respectively. Due to its anti-immigration and eurosceptic policies, the latter is unlikely to be able to cooperate with any party in the parliament. The ‘Free Party’ however, might hold the key to keep Prime Minister Rõivas in power (see below). It is noteworthy that about 30% of voters cast their vote via the internet which constitutes a new record since e-voting was introduced in 2005. Furthermore, in contrast to other Central and East European countries turnout remained stable and even increased slightly from previous years.
It is almost inevitable that president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who since his first election in 2006 has been particularly close to the Reform Party (despite being a former leader of the Social Democrats), will ask Taavi Rõivas to form another government following customary exploratory talks. A continuation of the coalition between the Reform Party and the Social Democrats appears to be a done deal, yet it remains to be seen which party will contribute the additional six seats required for a majority. In terms of ideological closeness, the most natural coalition partner for the Reform Party would be the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL), yet given their seat share might be able to make greater demands. Furthermore, the last coalition between the three parties broke down due to disagreements (Reform Party and IRL continued as a minority government) which Rõivas will be keen to avoid. The ‘Free Party’ on the other hand is also still compatible with the current coalition parties might – also due to its smaller seat share and resulting weaker leverage – be a more likely choice as coalition partner.
More information (in Estonian) on the website of the Estonian Electoral Commission: