Editorials

Elections in Estonia: the victory of the liberals, the protest vote in Narva, and the success of the Putinists

Estonian current prime minister and chairwoman of the Reform party, Kaja Kallas, speaks to media after advance voting via e-voting in the Parliament (Riigikogu) elections at the Literaat cafe in Tallinn, Estonia, 01 March 2023.
  |   Estonian current prime minister and chairwoman of the Reform party, Kaja Kallas, speaks to media after advance voting via e-voting in the Parliament (Riigikogu) elections at the Literaat cafe in Tallinn, Estonia, 01 March 2023.

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The parliamentary elections held in Estonia showed that in an extremely unstable geopolitical situation in Europe, with the war in Ukraine going on for more than a year, the population is aware of the risks and is ready to rally around those political forces that rely on the European Union and NATO. At the same time, there were also some unpleasant discoveries for Estonian society.

A clear victory of the liberal forces. Why did the far right fared poorly at the national level, but had a strong showing in the southeast

If you look at the map, it becomes obvious: the liberal Reform Party, which also led the previous government, dominates almost the entire country, with the exception of two regions: the northeast and southeast. Incumbent Prime Minister Kaja Kallas garnered a record 31,821 votes in the election, and her party won more than a third of parliamentary seats.

The ultra-right national conservative EKRE was hit hard, as it lost more than half of their MP seats . Things turned out to be even worse for the Center Party: the former ruling party lost most of its mandates and was deprived of the opportunity to form a ruling coalition.

The right-wing conservative Isamaa ("Fatherland"), which managed to push several populist reforms in recent years, has also lost votes. On the other hand, the Eesti 200 party, which made its debut in the last elections but did not enter parliament, showed an impressive result on its second try. This time, the party of pro-Western visionaries and innovators won 14 seats, almost reaching third place. The Social Democratic Party managed to overtake Isamaa and get nine mandates.

These are almost ideal conditions for creating a liberal coalition: the winning Reform Party has already invited Estonia 200 and the Social Democrats to join it. Considering that there are practically no fundamental ideological differences between the first two, and with the third they can only arise on the issue of raising taxes, there is a chance that Estonia will finally have a government that will be able to hold out in power for all four years. In fact, Estonia 200 declared its readiness to become a partner of the reformists even before the elections, and the Social Democrats were an accommodating junior partner in all the governments they joined.

The opposition EKRE, of course, tried to challenge the election results, saying that electronic voting is not transparent and its results could be forged. The fact is that voting online has been a feature of Estonian parliamentary elections since 2007 and it was introduced even earlier – in 2005 – in the local elections. This is a completely natural part of the Estonian electronic state, as familiar and convenient for the population as Internet banking. As a rule, only those parties whose electorate is quite conservative and prefers to vote at the polling stations speak out against it. This is the case with the Center Party, whose voters include many pensioners, and so it is with EKRE.

The State Court dismissed EKRE's complaint about the election results, so nothing prevents the Reform Party from forming a coalition that is already being called the most liberal in recent times. Its priorities will be national defense, a simple taxation system, education reform, combating climate change and the so-called "green transition" to green energy sources, and a more efficient spending of budget funds.

Why, despite the economic crisis, the sharp rise in electricity prices, and general inflation, did the populists fail to come to power? Observers are convinced that the country's orbanization was, oddly enough, prevented by the war in Ukraine. EKRE, like other European right-wing parties, has been repeatedly linked to spreading the Kremlin's agenda.

Traditional values, the fight against same-sex marriage, a skeptical or even aggressive attitude towards gender equality, climate change, and the European Union and NATO as a whole are typical of both the Kremlin and the European ultra-right. In addition, the founder of the national conservative EKRE (and also the father of its current leader), Mart Helme, was once the Estonian ambassador to Moscow and periodically allowed himself to make pro-Russian statements. Among the most striking, perhaps, it is worth remembering "Russians are more than a nation; they are a civilization", as well as the assertion that the Europe of Viktor Orban is better than the centralized Europe of Merkel and Macron.

In addition, shortly before the elections, Politico reported that a few years ago, the creator of Wagner PMC, "Putin’s cook", Yevgeny Prigozhin, planned an information operation in Estonia with the participation of EKRE. In general, Estonian political observers were skeptical about this news, but it was used by the party's rivals during the election campaign.

As a result, the only region where EKRE won was the southeast, a rural, conservative, and impoverished frontier region, whose residents were also outraged by the expansion of the military training ground in Nursipalu. The state promised to compensate the territories taken from local owners with money and not with equivalent plots of land, which was perceived as ignoring the interests of the population and was actively used by the party.

The bad news: Russian speakers living in Estonia’s northeastern region are increasingly radicalized

Much more depressing were the results of the elections in the northeast of Estonia, where the Putinists won. Traditionally, this region, with a predominantly Russian-speaking population that speaks little Estonian, has voted for representatives of the Center Party. This time, the centrists formally won more votes in the region than their closest rivals, but they lost a huge number of votes to the independent candidate Mikhail Stalnukhin, who was expelled from this party for calling politicians who demolished Soviet monuments fascists.

The Center Party lost its influence on many Russian-speaking voters after it abandoned its struggle for the preservation of Russian schools and took a clear position against the war in Ukraine. The only region where the Russian centrists showed a strong result was Tallinn, where they have been in power for a long time.

Another beneficiary of the centrist defeat in northeastern Ida-Virumaa, with a comparatively low turnout (below the national average), was the United Left Party, which entered the elections with the Koos ("Together") movement. The "Leftists" are the successors of the Communist Party in Estonia and stand for nothing less than reconciliation with Russia. The Koos movement tried to enter the elections on its own but was not registered as a political party and was forced to look for a partner who did not have legal obstacles.

In the elections, its representatives showed an impressive result. For example, one of its leaders, Aivo Peterson, received almost 4,000 votes in Ida-Virumaa, which for Estonia is a very decent figure even beyond this region. Shortly before that, Peterson traveled to Moscow, where he spoke in a propaganda TV show, and visited the occupied Donbass, which, in principle, is not very possible without the support of the Russian Federation.

At the same time, Peterson distributed videos in which he broadcast Kremlin narratives. Upon his return, he was interrogated for a long time at the border in Narva, and a few days later he was detained by the Estonian Security Police on suspicion of creating links against the Republic of Estonia. Together with him, another citizen of Estonia and a citizen of Russia permanently residing here were detained.

"One of the main reasons for the popularity of very radical candidates is that our region is undergoing too many changes for which it is not ready. A lot has happened in just one year— changes in the political landscape at the local and regional levels, three major crises in a row (the consequences of the pandemic, the economy, and identity)" says Denis Larchenko, chairman of the Narva City Council from Eesti 200.

In his opinion, many local people are not so afraid of the economic crisis or the issue of education as they are afraid for their future. "It has become much more important for them that someone promises to defend their interests. Apparently, they are inclined to trust in this matter those who are "not afraid" to speak up in matters of citizenship and the rights of national minorities. "Public floggings" (the deportation of some people from Estonia), strong-willed decisions of the government regarding Soviet monuments, the transition to Estonian-language education, as well as the slurred behavior of local authorities, became the triggers that forced them to make such a choice," he believes.

According to Larchenko, many local residents are only superficially familiar with the agendas of various political parties. And others were not ready to vote for the same Eesti 200 because its election program contained topics that were culturally alien to the region, for example, marriage equality, green energy, and Estonian-language education.

"The success of Koos is due primarily to the departure of the Center Party from the position of a "defender" of the interests and rights of Russians in Ida-Virumaa. Secondly, the war has divided society into those who are against the war and support Ukraine as a victim of aggression and those who believe that Russia is right because the evil West and its puppet Ukraine want to attack Russia. It is on this part of the Russian-speaking electorate, abandoned by centrists and sympathizers of the Russian Federation, that Koos staked his claim" says political scientist Peeter Taim.

The number of residents of Narva and other Ida-Virumaa cities who are ready to actually vote for the Kremlin turned out to be staggering for Estonians. It should be noted that in parliamentary elections, unlike municipal elections, non-citizens permanently residing in Estonia (who do not have citizenship of any country) and citizens of Russia do not have the right to vote. This makes politicians fear that in the local elections, which will be held in Estonia in two and a half years, the situation may turn out to be completely deplorable.

Theoretically, this could lead to the fact that a law would be initiated in Parliament depriving non-citizens of the right to vote, but this is a relatively long procedure that could lead to even more alienation of the border region from the rest of Estonia. This is potentially a very dangerous situation, which satisfies the Kremlin quite well and completely displeases the Estonian political mainstream and the majority of the Estonian population, including many Russian-speaking residents.

"I think it is quite possible to get Peterson voters into the Estonian mainstream, but it will take a lot of work. For me, the question here is rather, - is it necessary? The main part of Estonian parties is rather betting on the new generation", Denis Larchenko notes. "With this in mind, I fear that politicians who are somewhat conservative on security issues may be more likely to take the path of rudely ignoring them, for example, by depriving them of the right to vote in local government elections."

Whether Estonian politicians will find a constructive solution for the recalcitrant region is a big question.

Olesja Lagashina




Olesja Lagashina

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