Elections in Estonia: everything you need to know

Estonia goes to the polls on Sunday 5 March in a general election to choose new members of the 101-seat parliament – or Riigikogu.

Here’s everything you need to know about Estonian politics, parties, personalities and the issues at stake as the Baltic nation votes:

How did we get here?

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas pulled off a surprise win in the 2019 general election, and went on to form a centre-right government coalition with her Reform Party and the Centre Party.

But it was not all political smooth sailing in the nation of 1.3 million people. In June 2022 Kallas kicked the Centre Party out of government after they sided with the far-right EKRE party on education issues, and after disagreements over spending and welfare policies.

That lead Kallas and Reform to seek a new coalition government with the Social Democrats and Isamaa parties to secure a Riigikogu majority – which she secured in July last year.

With so many political ups and downs in the last few years, are Estonian’s geared up for Sunday’s vote? It seems like they are.

“I think the election is on a lot of people’s minds, and is getting a lot of coverage in the media,” explains Mari-Liis Jakobson, Associate Professor of Political Sociology at Tallinn University.

“The polls are frequent and the elections are part of everybody’s daily conversations,” she tells Euronews.

How does an election in Estonia work?

Up for grabs on 5 March are 101 seats, and they are currently held by five parties. If you want to get one of those seats there’s a 5% threshold to get into parliament: this year it looks quite likely the five main parties will be joined by another party called Estonia 200 which fell just short of reaching the 5% threshold in 2019, but which polled well in regional elections and hopes to translate that to national success this weekend.

This year outdoor advertising for parties and individual candidates is back, after being banned ahead of the 2019 general election so it’s a more colourful campaign than four years ago. 

Early voting started in Estonian embassies overseas on 18 February, and electronic voting is available all this week.

It’s also possible to cast a ballot by internet voting which can be done from a computer, with citizens using an ID-card and card reader, as well as PIN codes for security. 

People can vote on the internet all this week but if they change their mind, they can still go to a polling station on election day and vote there: the paper vote cancels out the electronic vote.

According to the Estonian Election Commission, there was already a 15.1% turnout by the evening of Tuesday 28 February. 

Turnout at the 2019 was moderately high at 67% of eligible voters.

What are the main political parties?

Estonian voters tend to skew more to the right than voters in other north European countries, and this is reflected in the makeup of parties which get into parliament.

Reform Party: Known as the ‘Squirrel Party’ in Estonia, Reform has 34 seats in parliament – the most of any party. Headed by PM Kaja Kallas, Reform is a centre-right liberal party which appeals to young professionals, voters with further education, and although it has a majority male party membership, it attracts a lot of its vote share from women.

Kallas has been very visible on the world stage this past year, with strong soundbites and a robust position on the war in Ukraine: but does it translate to domestic popularity?

“Domestically, politicians always have their supporters and opponents. Kaja is relatively popular as a prime minister, she is currently most popular candidate for the PM position, but I wouldn’t say that she’s unanimously liked,” says Mari-Liis Jakobson from Tallinn University.

Centre Party: Lead by former Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, the Estonian Centre Party is attractive to traditional, more conservative voters and also attracted a large share of the votes of Estonia’s Russian-speaking population. However they’ve drifted away from the Centre Party in the last couple of years, and the Centre Party has been hurt by a cooperation agreement it had with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, and although the Centre will say the agreement wasn’t in force, they didn’t actually renounce it until March 2022, after Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine.

Social Democrats: Estonia’s Social Democrats had their peak in parliament in the 2011 election winning 19 seats but they’ve lost half their representation since then and could potentially be in danger of falling to around the 5% threshold. The party’s leader is interior minister Lauri Läänemets.

Isamaa: A conservative, Christian, centre-right party, Isamaa lost two seats at the last general election and captured slightly more than 11% of the vote. Although they’re currently part of the ruling government coalition, Isamaa – which means Fatherland – have had an internal ideological split over how close they should get to the far-right EKRE party. That dispute saw one of their MPs break away to form his own one-man party in parliament.  

Conservative People’s Party EKRE: The far-right EKRE party is a populist, nationalist party which is against immigration, wants to preserve Estonian culture and identity, and supports scrapping a parallel education system for Russian-speaking Estonians. Like most Estonian politicians, EKRE’s leaders are against marriage equality, but party leader Mart Helme has gone further by described Tallinn’s Pride events as a “parade of perverts,” and the party wants to see homosexual and multicultural propaganda (sic) taken out of schools.  

Main electoral themes

Soldiers participate in military parade during celebrations of the 105th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, in Tallinn, Estonia, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Sergei Grits/AP
Soldiers participate in military parade during celebrations of the 105th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, in Tallinn, Estonia, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Sergei Grits/AP© Provided by Euronews

The biggest issue going into the elections is national security – but with all the main parties backing the country’s stance in strong support of Ukraine, there is very little daylight between them on defence issues: the are all in favour of increasing defence spending even if they don’t agree on where the money should be spent exactly. 

“I would say there’s two major themes of the political campaign, and those have been the security situation and the cost of living, which in a way are two sides of the same coin,”

Explains Merili Arjakas, a Research Fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn. 

“The cost of living crisis is a result of Russian aggression in Ukraine, but Russian aggression is nothing new to us and we have wide consensus on security policy issues. The main parties have only small differences between them,” she tells Euronews. 

Some of those differences are about where the emphasis lies: Reform wants to focus on giving strong support to Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees in Estonia, as well as supporting international alliances like NATO and the EU. 

“Kaja Kallas has been punching up Estonia’s weight, and we certainly have a bigger share in European affairs if you look at our size. Focusing on the security situation fits her and her party as well, and we can see over the past year some ‘rallying around the flag’ going on,” says Arjakas. 

The Centre Party and EKRE want to focus more on the impact the war in Ukraine has had on the cost of living because they have traditionally got a lot of their votes from people with lower incomes or who need more state support. 

Other issues like healthcare and education, which might be more prominent in peace time, have not set the Estonian campaign trail alight so far.

What about Estonia’s Russian-speaking population?

FILE - A bridge straddles Ivangorod, Russia, left, and a border crossing in Narva, Estonia, Thursday, June 16, 2022. AP
FILE – A bridge straddles Ivangorod, Russia, left, and a border crossing in Narva, Estonia, Thursday, June 16, 2022. AP© Provided by Euronews

There are no overtly pro-Russian parties in Estonia, but with roughly 25% of the population identifying as Russian-speakers, where is there political home? 

In the past the Centre Party has been where most Russian-speaking votes have gone “they used to garner 70, 80, 90% of the Russian-speaking population,” explains Mari-Liis Jakobson from Tallinn University. 

“Turnout in Russian-speaking counties is generally lower than for Estonian speakers, and this time the turnout might be even lower because Russian-speakers are having a hard time knowing who to trust and who to support,” she says. 

Over the last five years the Centre Party has been losing Russian-speaking votes, while EKRE has been trying to court their support – which is a bit of a challenge given their anti-Russian stance in the past. 

But like EKRE, Estonia’s Russian-speaking population are more conservative, wary of rights for sexual and gender minorities, and EKRE has been using the Ukrainian refugees as a ‘grudge issue’ with the Russian-speaking population. 

“Even before the conflict, Ukrainians were the largest group of migrants coming to Estonia, and EKRE played on this, saying they are coming to take your jobs, and keeping wage levels down. It’s been a big issue,” says Jakobson. 

What are the results likely to be?

FILE: A general view of the Vanalinn district of Tallinn Old Town, with the St. Olaf's Church, centre. 24 February 2023 Pavel Golovkin/AP
FILE: A general view of the Vanalinn district of Tallinn Old Town, with the St. Olaf’s Church, centre. 24 February 2023 Pavel Golovkin/AP© Provided by Euronews

Most political experts think that Kaja Kallas’s Reform Party will emerge as the winners when the votes are counted, but the big question is who she might want in her coalition – or whether she might be shut out of a coalition government by a bloc of the other parties instead. 

“Many parties have ruled out making a coalition with EKRE, like Estonia 200, the Social Democrats and even Isamaa which was in a coalition before with EKRE and the Centre party. This time Isamma has been making noises that they wouldn’t want to go into a coalition with them again,” explains Mari-Liis Jakobson, Associate Professor of Political Sociology at Tallinn University.

“Reform and Estonia 200 and the Social Democrats could be a possibility because there is a more natural overlap of voters there. But on the other hand it could be EKRE with the Centre Party and possibly Isamaa” she says, hedging her bets. 

The main faultline in Estonian politics, says Merili Arjakas, “is whether or not you are with EKRE, or willing to stand against EKRE.” 

“It will very much come down to one or two seats. The most likely option is a coalition between the Reform Party and the Centre Party, if they manage to get more than 52 or 53 seats combined.”

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