By Martin Mölder (University of Tartu)
The Estonian parliamentary elections that ended on Sunday can be considered both exceptional or rather commonplace, depending on how one looks at the results. The same could be said about possible coalitions that can form in the aftermath.
The elections were exceptional first and foremost because of the very high level of voters that chose to cast their vote online. Estonia has had the option to vote via the Internet using the national ID card ever since the 2005 local elections and the number of online voters has steadily increased ever since. In the first parliamentary election where this option was available (in 2007), about 5% of the people who voted chose to vote online. In 2015 already about 30% of the voters chose this option and this time the numbers were higher by much more than was expected. After all votes were cast in 2019, about 44% of the voters had voted online. The extent of services that are built around the Estonian digital online identity and the fact that people use this on a daily basis for banking, signing documents and interacting with the government, among other things, without any major issues has ensured that trust also towards online voting is very high. If these elections were exceptional, it is mostly for this reason. They were a testament to Estonia as a well-functioning e-country and e-society.
The actual results of the elections were much less surprising. It was expected that the Reform Party would win and most polls leading up to election day indicated that this would be the case. The right-wing liberal Reform Party got 28.9% of the vote and the left leaning Centre Party 23.1%. The only thing that was surprising was the fact that the margin of victory was so wide – about five percentage points. However, if one compares the results of the two largest parties to the previous elections in 2015, then their support fluctuated only slightly. The Reform Party gained about one per cent and the Centre Party lost slightly less than two percent. Thus, nothing much changed between the two largest parties.
The biggest winner of these elections was the right-wing conservative protest party EKRE (Estonian Conservative People’s Party), which doubled its vote share from 8.1% to 17.8%. EKRE entered parliament in 2015 with another protest party – the Estonian Free Party – but the latter lost all of its support during the parliamentary term and got less than two percent of the vote. Being under the threshold of 5%, they were left out of the parliament and are now facing a slow disintegration as parties that have received less than 2% of the vote do not qualify for state subsidies. There will be few incentives to keep the Estonian Free Party together.
The other two losers of this election were Estonia 200 and the Social Democrats. The former is a newly established party that gathers experts from different walks of life that came together to from a party with the objective to provide, with their expertise, a long-term plan for Estonian politics and society. However, their slightly elitist/technocratic outlook made it difficult for them to appeal to the wider electorate and after an unsuccessful media campaign in January, which pitted Estonians against Russians, they sealed their fate to remain below the electoral threshold. However, the fact that they still got about 4.4% of the vote ensures that they will receive 100 000 EUR annually until the next parliamentary elections, making their survival at least until then likely. Finally, the Social Democrats lost in the sense that their popularity dropped from 15.2% in 2015 to 9.8%, making them the smallest party in parliament.
And so, a new parliament was elected with 5 parties instead of the previous 6 and a slightly lower level of fragmentation than was the case after many previous elections. The obstacles set by the electoral system as well as the fact that just shy of 10% of the vote went for parties below the electoral threshold indicates that in 2023 we will again see a fierce competition for somebody new to enter the parliament. It is also worth while to mention that this time 27 women were elected to parliament (out of 101 members), which is an all-time record for Estonia.
As I am writing these lines, the options for coalitions are still open and talks are just starting. It is also here that there is a possibility for things to be either very boring or quite interesting. The winner of the elections, the Reform Party, has ruled out EKRE as a potential coalition partner and right now it seems that its most preferred choice would be a coalition with the conservative Fatherland, which received 11.4% of the vote, and the Social Democrats. This combination of parties has governed before and even though the Reform Party was betrayed by the other two members of this coalition in 2016 in favour of the Centre Party, it is likely that they would be able to get past old grudges and political differences to form a coalition.
However, because the Reform Party has ruled out EKRE, it has limited its options to such an extent as to provide Fatherland and the Centre Party a possible strategic advantage, should they whish to play it out. If Fatherland says “no” to the coalition with the Reform Party and the Social Democrats, then the Reform Party has only the option to try to form a coalition with the Centre Party. However, the latter could have an incentive to say “no” to that as the Centre Party would prefer to continue as the party of the prime minister and not as a coalition partner in a government led by the Reform. If the Centre Party says “no”, then the Reform Party would have no other options. The chance to form a coalition would pass on to the Centre Party who could then form a coalition with EKRE and Isamaa. This is a complicated scenario and chances are against it, but one should keep this option in mind. If for no other reason, then for the fact that whichever government is formed, it is unlikely that they will last the whole parliamentary term.
Photo source: https://www.france24.com/en/20190304-estonia-opposition-reform-party-kaja-kallas-wins-election-far-right-surges