Election preview: Estonia

Estonia goes to the polls on Sunday in a general election that offers the unusual prospect of a contest for first place between two liberal parties. One is the Reform Party, strongly pro-market, which has been in government since 2005; the other is the Centre Party, more populist in tone and slightly eurosceptic, which has been the main opposition party for the last two terms and is now running ahead of Reform in the polls.

Both sit in the liberal-centrist group in the European parliament. The Reform Party is a member of Liberal International; the Centre Party applied for membership in 2001 but was rejected – according to Wikipedia, because the conduct of its leader, Edgar Savisaar, was found to “not always conform to liberal principles”

It’s not terribly unusual for European countries to have two liberal parties, one leaning to the right and one to the left, but rarely are they on such bad terms as Estonia’s. Economic policy is only part of the reason: probably more important these days is the ethnic or security question, with the Centre Party based heavily in the votes of the country’s large Russian minority. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has made many Estonians nervous about Russian intentions, and Savisaar’s previous co-operation with Vladimir Putin has evidently led some to regard his party as a potential fifth column.

That means that even if the Centre Party takes first place in Sunday’s voting, it’s unlikely to be able to form a government. The Reform Party should be able to continue in office with the support of either or both of the other two main parties, the centre-right Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) and the centre-left Social Democrats (SDE). IRL served as the junior partner in coalition from the 2007 election until last year, when it was replaced by SDE.

In contrast to the situation in much of Europe, Estonians seem to be reasonably content with their established parties. At the last election, in 2011, the four of them won 89.5% of the vote between them, and all the seats (there is a 5% threshold for representation, which is otherwise proportional). That figure will no doubt come down, but according to the polls it’s still holding above 80%.

It’s not hard to find an explanation for this contentment: Estonia’s performance through the European financial crisis has been remarkably good. Its public debt is the lowest in the European Union and unemployment has more than halved since 2010. The Reform Party has been committed to sound finance and as a result the country has become something of a poster child for austerity measures, although the explanation for its success is probably more complicated than that.

Nonetheless, it’s further confirmation of the point I was making the other day about the common ground between liberals and centre-left. The most aggressively free-market of Estonia’s parties seems to have no difficulty sitting in coalition with the social democrats, and vice versa. Last year’s change of coalition partner has led to more progressive social policies but no major shift on either economics or security.

Polls suggest that two smaller right-wing parties, the Conservative People’s Party and the Free Party, may also pass the threshold to enter parliament. If so, that will render coalition-making more difficult, probably increasing the chance of a grand coalition between Reform, IRL and SDA. The Greens, who were represented between 2007 and 2011, are languishing well below the 5% mark.

Results should be available by late morning Monday, Australian time. You can try the official website here, but it’s fair to say that Estonian is a challenging language.


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