Election preview: Estonia

Estonia, the fourth-smallest member (by population) of the European Union, is not a major world power, but it’s come to world attention more in the last twelve months due to its position on NATO’s front line: its eastern border is with Russia, and it has a substantial ethnic Russian minority – the product of a deliberate Russification campaign in the days of the Soviet Union.

So its parliamentary election to be held on Sunday is well worth a look. The last election, four years ago, saw five parties reach the 5% threshold for representation. In ascending order they were the centre-left (ten seats), centre-right (12), far right (19), and two broadly centrist parties: Centre (left-leaning, but also appealing to the ethnic Russians) with 26 seats and Reform (more right-leaning or “classical liberal”) with 34.

That left a rich variety of possibilities to reach a majority, and three different combinations have been tried. First up was a coalition between Centre, far right and centre-right, with Centre leader Jüri Ratas as prime minister. It commanded a good working majority, with 57 seats out of 101, but it was controversial for its inclusion of the far-right party, EKRE, which saw itself as part of the Trumpist wave in world politics (often misleadingly called “populism”).

Ratas resigned at the beginning of 2021 after a number of his party’s officials become embroiled in a corruption scandal, and Reform’s leader, Kaja Kallas, took over as prime minister (the first woman to hold the job). EKRE and the centre-right (called “Fatherland”, or Isamaa) were dropped, but Centre remained on board, now as a junior partner.

But then came the invasion of Ukraine, and Centre started to look like a possible fifth column. Last June, Kallas sacked her Centre ministers after they voted against a bill for Estonian-language education in kindergartens. Instead she turned to Fatherland and the centre-left Social Democrats, and they agreed on the formation of a strongly pro-Ukrainian government, which won a parliamentary vote of confidence 52-26 (with EKRE evidently abstaining).

Now that government seeks a fresh mandate. Opinion polls say that the same five parties will make it back into parliament, with the addition of a sixth: Estonia 200, which just missed out last time with 4.4%, but is now polling in the low teens. Its politics are liberal-progressive and pro-European; it would be a good fit for Reform if it finds that it needs new partners.

That’s very possible, because although Reform itself is still polling well – if anything slightly above the 28.9% that it won last time – both centre-right and centre-left seem to have lost some support, and the government could slip below the 51 seats needed for a majority. But Centre is unlikely to benefit; according the polls it has lost about a quarter of the 23.1% that it had last time, and is now in third place behind Reform and EKRE.

Prior to the last election, and then when it was in government with Centre, EKRE seemed to soften its traditional anti-Russian stance and show more sympathy with Vladimir Putin. But the Ukraine war has put paid to that tendency, and even Centre, while clearly more pacific than the others, has paid lip service to solidarity with Ukraine.

Estonia was forcibly incorporated in the Soviet Union in 1939 and did not recover its independence for more than fifty years. If Putin were to be successful in destroying the Ukrainian state, it’s not very far-fetched to think that Estonia and the other Baltic states would be next on his agenda. So whatever the exact shape of the new government, we can be confident that it will remain firmly on the side of Ukraine.


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