By Martin Mölder (University of Tartu)
The Estonian parliamentary elections of 2023 stand out in several respects. Perhaps the most important change in comparison to the 2019 elections is an increase in turnout. If one looks at the reported proportions of turnout, then this fact can be overlooked, but in 2023 about 50 000 voters more or roughly 5% of the electorate came out to vote than 4 years previously. The overall proportion remained the same (63.7% in 2023 as well as in 2019), however, because there was a change in the way citizens permanently living outside of Estonia were counted. There were about 90 thousand people more in the official count of the electorate in 2023 than in 2019 (the total number of eligible voters in 2023 was about 966 thousand).
Another record that was broken was online-voting turnout. In the previous parliamentary elections 43.8% of those who voted decided to do so online. This time the proportion of online voters reached almost 51%. Looking across all elections that have taken place (including local and European Parliament elections), the pace of growth for online participation seems to be slowing down. But it is still likely that in the next elections we will see a slight increase in the proportion of online voters.
In terms of the distribution of votes and seats, the results were a major win for the Reform Party, which increased its vote share by more than two percentage points and its number of seats in the 101-member parliament by 3 in comparison to the 2019 elections. This is an all-time record for the party. Another record was broken by the Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who received almost 32 000 votes (which is more than the 5% threshold for party lists). No candidate has received more votes. This shows her popularity and the fact that she is broadly considered as a good prime minister during the current times.
The election night had another positive surprise in store and this was for the newcomer Estonia 200. They were formed just before the previous parliamentary elections in 2019, but back then they remained just below the electoral threshold of 5%. During the four years until the next elections they built up their organization, recruited a range of prominent newcomers to politics and were able to present themselves as an actual alternative to voters who would prefer a liberal party with a fresh face. In the 2023 elections they gained almost 10 percentage points of support in comparison to 2019 (their result at the polls was 13.3%) and were able to enter parliament with 14 seats.
It is noteworthy that both Estonia 200 and the Reform Party were able to secure a good result at the polls at the same time, because to a large extent they share the same electorate. In the inter-election period, opinion polls indicated that when the Reform Party was doing poorly, Estonia 200 gained in support and vice versa. The fact that they both did well might indicate that first and foremost it was they who were able to bring new voters to the polls and thus change a zero-sum game between the two of them into a positive-sum game.
While the Reform Party and Estonia 200 were the biggest winners at these elections, the Centre Party and the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) have most reasons to be dissatisfied with their performance. In comparison to 2019 the Centre Party lost 7.8 percentage points in support and 10 seats in parliament. It was evident that the position of the party was not as strong as four years ago, but the magnitude of the losses must have come as a surprise. Likewise, the conservative-populist EKRE was faced with a major disappointment at the end of election night. Over the parliamentary term their popularity had reached at times to the mid-20s and the expectation within the party must have been at least a modest gain over their previous election result. The reality, however, was that they lost almost two percentage points of support and two seats in parliament. Their relative ambivalence over the question of the war in Ukraine and a few other issues they raised before the elections (e.g. a conflict with the head of the defence forces) turned out to be not to their benefit, but to their loss.
Out of the two smallest parties that entered parliament, the Social Democratic party was able to essentially repeat their result at the previous election and even though they lost one seat, they can be satisfied. Poor performance at the local elections in 2021 raised doubts about their capacity, but a strong result now shows that they managed to deliver. As for the conservative Fatherland, they lost 3.2 percentage points in support and gathered only 8.2% of the vote, which gave them 8 seats in parliament (4 less than in 2019). It was evident that their support was lower than in the previous elections, but still this result must have come as a small disappointment.
Below the electoral threshold of 5% we see that the newly formed Right-Wingers were able to get only 2.3% of the vote. And just above them with 2.4% of the vote we see the United Left Party, an otherwise almost non-existent party whose electoral lists this time included people who campaigned with an explicitly pro-Kremlin and anti-Estonian agenda. Across the whole country their support was marginal, but they did manage to gather quite a lot of votes in the Russian-speaking areas of Tallinn and Ida-Virumaa. Receiving more than 2% of the vote nationally, they are now entitled to a small amount of funding from the state budget. Thus, for the next 4 years Estonia will have an anti-Estonian party that is funded by the Estonian taxpayers.
The distribution of seats in parliament (Reform Party 37, EKRE 17, Centre Party 16, Estonia 200 14, Social Democrats 9 and Fatherland 8) ensures the dominance of the Reform Party for the next 4 years. They as well as the Social Democrats and Estonia 200 have ruled out any cooperation with EKRE, which means that there is no coalition combination that would not include the Reform Party as the party of the Prime Minister. Thus, we are almost certain to see a Reform Party led government for the next 4 years and Kaja Kallas as the Prime Minister. And because many coalition options are available for the squirrels (a squirrel is the logo-animal of the Reform Party and they are often referred to by that), they are able to set the agenda and change coalition partners should they desire to do so. Therefore, we are likely to see at least one coalition change mid-term as well.
Photo source: https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/estonia-goes-polls-test-pro-kyiv-government-2023-03-05/