Estonian Newcomers Make Waves Before March Parliamentary Elections6 min read

With only thirty-five days until the polls close in Estonia, newcomers to the political arena continue to make waves. Estonian elections have long been dominated by two parties; the Centre party and the Reform party, but this year is different: rookie parties are pushing the policy conversation forward and shifting political rhetoric and priorities, leaving the future governing coalition uncertain.

Each week brings a new prediction, from the December polling that suggested the currently-ruling Centre Party would prevail, to the more recent discussions about a potential Centre-Reform party partnership. However, the majority of media and public attention has been focused on the rabble-rousers of this election: groups like the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) and Estonia 200, which have stepped into the limelight to give the traditional Centre and Reform parties a serious run for their money. The result? A widening political spectrum and a more divisive climate that may portend trouble for the Estonian Parliament.

The Centre Party and the Reform Party have long been the two most popular parties in Estonia. The liberal market-oriented Reform Party played a part in every governing coalition until 2016, when it was pushed into the opposition role after the Centre Party, the Social Democrats (SDE), and Pro Patria formed a coalition. Despite controversy and corruption accusations surrounding its former leader Edgar Savisaar, the Centre Party has remained prominent, especially among the Estonian Russian population. The Centre Party was long thought of as the only party that speaks to the sidelined and segregated ethnic Russians in Estonia, which make up 27 percent of the population.

Both the Reform and the Centre Party are members of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and they share a relatively similar agendas when compared to their competitors, including promoting collective European security, protecting the environment, encouraging cultural life, and developing even stronger ties to international organizations like NATO. However, they do disagree on fiscal policy; the Reform Party treasures traditional free market policies, hopes to do away with the social tax altogether, and plans on privatizing pensions, while the Centre Party backs and encourages a progressive tax system.

As of the end of January, polling by Estonian news site ERR estimates that Centre will receive 33 percent of the vote and Reform will receive 25 percent. More unusual, though, is how the younger parties have either overtaken or are inching closer towards more-established parties like SDE and Pro Patria. ERKE, which looks close to almost tripling its present number of Members of Parliament from 7 to 17, came on the scene in 2012 and newcomer Estonia 200 was only formed in 2018 in Estonia’s 100th anniversary year. The adolescence of Estonia 200 is apparent in their loosely-planned and vague party platform, which includes legalizing dual citizenship in Estonia, increasing the property tax, and boosting opportunities for Estonian companies abroad to secure loans from Estonia banks. The party, which was founded on the premise of preparing Estonia for its 200th anniversary (hence the party name), has been relatively ambiguous in their supposedly “long-term” aims. EKRE, on the other hand, has not shied away from clearly defining their extreme party positions on social issues, such as militarizing the border, teaching “Estonian-mindedness”, decreasing the number of abortions, and introducing a constitutional amendment that mandates marriage be between a man and a woman.

The newcomers have not shied away from resorting to outlandish or attention-grabbing tactics and politics. Estonia 200 made headlines in early January with, and is still reeling from the repercussions of, a provocative poster campaign at Tallinn tram stops that seemed to encourage the segregation of ethnic Estonians and ethnic Russians. Critics of the campaign have called into question the ethics and decision-making of Estonia 200, but no one can deny the boldness of a rookie party in addressing an historically divisive issue that has remained somewhat avoided, slighted, and buried. EKRE, similarly, has raised eyebrows with their combative ideas and proposals. In an interview with Estonian news site Postimees, the chairman of the party Mart Helme said, “We do not want to see Estonia become a garbage can for the surplus population of the Third World.” In addition to using disparaging language to defend their anti-immigrant platforms, EKRE members have made pro-Nazi comments and demonstrated a readiness to condone violence and online trolling. The inflammatory commentary and rallies of EKRE were partly responsible for raising awareness about and inciting backlash against the UN Global Compact on Migration.

As a result, the Centre and Reform parties have both publicly stated that they will not consider partnering with EKRE in the next government. SDE and Pro Patria are unlikely to garner enough seats to join a coalition with Centre or Reform, and EKRE is essentially isolated and marginalized, raising the question of who will work together to make the next government? Will Centre and Reform overcome their past as adversaries and competitors? The last time the two dominant parties banded together was in the coalition that governed from 2005 to 2007; since then, the accusations of money laundering against former Centre chairman Savisaar and the supposed arrogance of the Reform Party have forged distrust and rivalry between the two that has undermined any potential collaboration.

The expanding extremism is symptomatic of growing social unrest in Estonia; a number of divisive policy issues, from changing the income tax structure to the levy on alcohol to the uncertainty of immigration, have taken center stage in the last few months of debate. The factionism reflects a country at an impasse: Estonia is at the forefront of a Baltic resurgence, with a bustling economy and growing tech sector both sorely in need of immigrant labor. At the same time, Estonia’s quick progress and the rising standard (and cost) of living have left some communities behind, resulting in socioeconomic inequality and political estrangement.

From Toomas Ilves’ 1996 speech to Parliament to the talk delivered by Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas in 2016, evidence abounds of how the Estonian government has long prioritized an innovative and modern economy, the information society, and the development of trade relations with the European Union. Yet, the momentum of parties like EKRE and Estonia 200 may challenge such a precedent, communicating the desire of the Estonian public that the government now focus on immigration, improved healthcare, or protecting the Estonian language and culture.

The recent antagonistic, discordant political rhetoric in Estonia endangers the country’s relative political stability. It may also signal Estonia’s vulnerability to the wave of populism that has threatened to drown parts of Europe in the last few years. It will be difficult to know for sure which direction Estonia is leaning, towards traditional, straightforward democracy or an increasingly fragmented Parliament, until March 3, when the final tallies roll in.

Anna Blue graduated with honors from the International Relations program at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. After working for a small think tank in Los Angeles for two years, she arrived in Tartu, Estonia to pursue her Fulbright grant for a year. As a Fulbright researcher, she studies and investigates the policy and security impacts of Estonian e-residency.