Estonian Local Election Review: Left Loses, Right Revives, and Populists Ponder

The October local elections marked a transformation in Estonian politics. The Center Party, which traditionally dominated the major cities’ politics, lost a significant vote share. Smaller parties on the left and right jockeyed to fill the vacuum. It is too early to presume the populist wave ebbed away. Generally, liberal-conservative parties triumphed over the center-left. What appeared to be a chance for Estonia’s progressives to dominate the national conversation is fast becoming an era of fracture, coalition wrangling and uncertainty.

Voting – especially e-voting – runs smoothly

Overall indicators were positive, signaling public participation and continued adherence to the rule of law. Turnout was greater than in 2017 at 54 percent, a sign of continued public commitment to democratic practice. The electronic vote – a flagship innovation immensely important to Estonian democracy, especially during the coronavirus pandemic – also ran smoothly. Electronic voting turnout was a record 15 percent increase since 2017. A majority of voters in several counties voted online this election, including populous Harju County, where Tallinn is located. Furthermore, the e-vote’s security remained intact despite concerns – only one complaint about the e-voting system was filed with the Electoral Commission according to its director. The flurry of reports surrounding alleged irregularities could be explained as a byproduct of greater public involvement in government-sponsored election integrity projects.

Center in Retreat

The syncretic Center Party, which dominated municipal governments, saw a series of serious defeats on October 17. The party was trounced in its former Narva stronghold by Social Democrat Katri Raik, going from 60 percent of City Council seats after the 2017 election to only 32 percent in 2021. This comes after unprecedented political instability in the city government, where the Center Party’s divides resulted in three mayors governing Narva since 2020. Raik’s list received an impressive 16 out of 31 seats and 43 percent of the vote, well ahead of the Center Party, suggesting that voters sought to choose a more stable coalition leader. Similarly, a four-party coalition could oust the Center Party in Kohtla-Järve, undermining another Center Party stronghold in eastern Estonia.

The party performed better in Tallinn, arriving just short of a majority with 45 percent of the vote. Tallinn mayor and Center Party member Mihhail Kõlvart might have quipped after the results were counted that all the parties promising to oust him now offer coalition agreements, but his party now must share power for the first time since 2001. Thus far, the Tallinn Social Democrats are in negotiations with the Center Party, lending the potential coalition a center-left tone. Equally importantly, almost half of the party members elected to the Tallinn City Council are Russian speakers, cementing the party’s dependence on voters from the city’s outer districts like Lasnamäe which have disproportionately high Russophone populations. These reversals could push the party away from its self-identity as a bridge between Estonians and Russophones as exemplified under former Prime Minister Jüri Ratas. Indeed, rumors abound that Ratas may be ousted from the party leadership. While Center’s political soul-searching continues, its rural and Russian voter base’s patience cannot be taken for granted.

EKRE Wave Floods, But Doesn’t Sink Rival Parties

While the Center Party shed votes, the anticipated populist wave did not materialize. Voters expressed their disapproval by voting in fractured legislatures, vexing the major parties.
The Estonian Conservative People’ (EKRE) Party victories fell short of pundits’ high expectations. Party leader Martin Helme claimed that his party had the greatest victory because it saw the largest vote increase. Undoubtedly EKRE made gains, doubling its vote share from 6.7 to 13.2 percent nationwide. It additionally became the largest party in four municipalities, including  Pärnu County. However, it failed to deliver on the spectacular victories it promised. It came in second or third place in 45 municipalities – results that do not guarantee EKRE a chance at forming many municipal governments. Likewise, the EKRE’s campaigning among Russophones saw few gains as it garnered only two seats in the Tallinn City Council, moving from 6 to 8 seats. It won no seats in Narva despite campaigning heavily in the region. Since the elections concluded, at least three councilors elected under EKRE’s banner resigned in disagreement with the party’s policies, further weakening its position. The party’s lackluster seat count partially stems from its controversial stint in government, which linked it to the establishment political forces ostensibly opposed by the public.

The Right Ascendant

As populists and syncretic parties floundered, the established conservative and moderate parties stabilized or increased their vote share. Center right mainstay Isamaa (Fatherland) saw its vote share rise. It won the largest number of votes in the northwestern city of Rakvere, winning 8 out of 21 seats. Considering the party polled close to the electoral threshold months before, these results signal Fatherland’s electoral survival. This could be explained by continued nationwide support for the party as well as an inspired electoral campaign focusing on preservation and tradition. After the coronavirus pandemic’s disturbances, stability gained new meaning.

Liberal parties of the center and center-right retained their support base as well. The free-market Reform Party, which supplies the current prime minister, came within three seats of the Center Party in the nationwide municipal seat count and remained the official opposition in Tallinn despite losing almost 2,000 votes. The social liberal Estonia 200 defied expectations by gaining 15 percent in Tartu, party founder Kristina Kallas’ hometown. In Tallinn the party earned 9.5 percent, tied with EKRE for third place. The party’s candidates proved personally popular, with Kristina Kallas receiving the ninth-most personal votes of any candidate in Estonia – the highest for a third-party candidate (Katri Raik, in fourth place, ran as an independent). Estonia’s local elections are open-list, where candidates’ combined vote totals comprise the party’s vote share. Kallas’ personal popularity is therefore crucial for a party’s survival. Estonia 200 positioned itself as a flexible force ready to cooperate for overall goals, but its largely urban and educated base curbs significant future expansion. Overall, the center right family, from conservatives to liberals, either stabilized or made modest gains in local representation, ensuring moderates dominate local governance.

Center-Left Drops

Unlike the right-wing and center-right, the center-left parties were decimated in the election. The Social Democrats saw their vote halved from 2017, losing 103 councilors nationwide. In Tartu, it lost almost half of its seats, complicating coalition arrangements as the leading Reform Party needed to find a third coalition partner instead of continuing the prior Reform-Social Democratic coalition. The Green Party also lost votes compared with 2017, despite polling indicating they could cross the electoral threshold. Like Estonia 200, the Greens are urban and reliant on educated young professionals, as witnessed by the party’s high e-voting rate. They however failed to mobilize those voters, as co-leader Caspar Kurve admitted in a post-election speech. “None of us are pleased our main focus was Tallinn and Tartu,” he added, a key point given the party’s first place showing in rural Antslas parish, suggesting opportunities existed among rural voters the present leadership ignored.
Kurve called for broadening the party’s appeal as a way to overcome the loss, stating, ” We want to involve experts to speak on these issues. We need to make the Greens more trustworthy for those people as well.” Despite putting on a brave face, Greens and Social Democrats suffered and will need to reassess their strategy before the 2023 parliamentary election.

Localism, the Balancing Force

Estonia’s traditional left-right dichotomy is undone by the strong second-place finish of local lists, which won pluralities in most municipalities. These lists are often not formal parties but coalitions of like-minded politicians. National party affiliation is less relevant: Social Democrat Katri Raik ran as head of her own list in Narva while remaining active in social democratic politics. The lists’ syncretism and reach makes them key political players, albeit without a single voice. Nationally, the lists became the largest vote-getters after the Center Party, through their strength in smaller municipalities where partisan politics are less potent. Their biggest victory came in Narva, where Social Democratic-aligned Katri Raik displaced the dominant Center Party with her municipal list. With 15 seats in the 31-seat council, its votes are indispensable to any governing coalition. The Center Party, with ten seats, is unlikely to command the support necessary for a stable municipal government. Other municipalities show the localist influence. In Pärnu, EKRE’s first place result may come to naught if a municipal list agrees with the Center and Reform parties to form a coalition excluding the national conservatives. Similarly, a local list retained its plurality on Estonia’s largest island, Saaremaa. Municipal lists’ successes in populated areas suggest that the inward turn is a significant political phenomenon that will determine the face of local governments across Estonia.

The 2021 local elections gave the various families of the center-right ample reason to cheer. Populists were warded off, preserving the right leaning voter base, and the center-left remains fragmented and confined to its existing strongholds. This balance of power is broken by the continued popularity of local-oriented parties and upstart moderate Estonia 200, whose strong showing in Tartu and Narva suggests stiff future competition for the established parties. With the votes counted, coalition negotiations will determine Estonia’s political landscape leading up to the 2023 parliamentary elections. Amid fragmented legislatures and consistent anti-incumbent sentiment, anything is possible at city hall.

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