Sizing up Estonia's parties before the March elections

The youth and energy of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas, pictured with his partner, Luisa Värk, an Estonian pop star, is part of the Reform Party's campaign message. (Postimees/Scanpix)
Juhan-Markus Laats
10/30/2014 11:43 AM
Category: Opinion

The parliamentary elections are approaching and there are great rewards in store for the winners, who will choose the next president in 2016, oversee Estonia's centennial in 2018, and host the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union during the first six months of that year.

There are plenty of key questions to navigate before two or three political parties can begin claiming the prizes. Perhaps the biggest question in the air is something unimaginable just a few years ago - the nation seems to be drifting politically to the left. Even IRL, the most right-wing party, has jumped on the bandwagon with some of its policy positions. The question will be how far left the turn will be, and who will claim the credit.

The Cohabitation Act will resurface before the elections. National defense topics have gone quiet in the past few months after the ceasefire in Ukraine, or have morphed into border issues. But they will still have a high priority in voters' minds come March 1.

Here's a roundup of each of the parties' position in the race as the election season starts:

The Reform Party

Whatever happens, most people will put their money on the Reform Party, which has, partially correctly, claimed credit for Estonia's success. At the beginning of the year the party went through a makeover, partially forced but successful nonetheless. The party has done much branding to associate words such as “success” and “winner” with it, youthful Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas, whose civil partner is pop star Luisa Värk, will further that cause.

The big question is not whether the party will win the elections, but will it have enough seats to pick its own coalition partner. The Social Democrats will be the first pick, IRL will cost them far more.

The Center Party

The party is becoming more and more a single-issue party (ethnic integration), and on an issue which is not in its interest to solve. The party would not exist in a more developed political culture, and its two main voter groups, pensioners and ethnic Russians, were divided up between the other three parties. Then again, integration is one of the largest unsolved topics on the road to a more developed political and social situation.

In recent years, the Social Democrats have seen an inflow of new supporters - mostly pensioners, but also other demographic groups bypassed by Estonia's success - a process greatly accelerated by the pro-Russian camp in the Center Party after the Ukraine crisis started. But that trend was reversed by the passage of the Cohabitation Act, with many finding the Social Democrats a bit too progressive for their liking.

The ethnic Russian vote is far harder to move, and memories of the 2007 Bronze Night riots persist. Again, the Social Democrats have been the most successful in stealing ethnic Russian votes, but that could also see a setback due to the same reasons as with the older generation: the two groups were least supportive of the bill.

It will be up to the likes of Kadri Simson and Jüri Ratas to win back ethnic Estonian votes, and the party could suffer badly if they fail, especially as non-citizens, mostly ethnic Russians, will not be voting, as these are general elections. The number of people who are eligible to vote at the March elections is far fewer than at local elections, close to 200,000 fewer according to the Election Committee.

Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL)

Feeling bitter after ejection from the coalition, IRL has more cards up its sleeve than it can count. The party made a big splash at the local elections and is likely to be the most vocal this time around. It has already suggested a 500-euro tax-free minimum and proposing Juhan Parts instead of Urmas Reinsalu as its PM candidate, Reinsalu seen as perhaps lacking the persona to move the electorate.

The Cohabitation Act is key to IRL's campaign. The 52 percent who were against giving same-sex couples legal rights will seek a party to vote for, and it won't be the Conservative People's Party. But IRL is not united on the topic, and many of its potential heavyweights (Eerik-Niiles Kross, Yoko Alender and Marko Mihkelson) will stir up internal debate. Mihkelson and probably a few other MPs would have voted for the bill, but the party's election strategy dictated otherwise, and it will be interesting to see how the party will attempt to woo the anti-cohabitation demographic while trying to keep the more than one-third of its voters who supported the bill.

Social Democrats

The party tends to be popular between elections, but not on the actual day of the polls. Voters have so far liked their ideas and the Western image they depict, but have not taken them seriously. The ongoing year in government could expel or intensify that image.

How is the party faring so far? Economy Minister Urve Palo has already stepping in a number of traps left by IRL, Ivari Padar (agriculture) has been feeling the heat from farmers, while Jevgeni Ossinovski has done well, but touched nerves with Ligi-gate. The party might have seen an opportunity to punish the Reform Party and dispel the image that they are no pushovers, but Ossinovski may have lost a few points in the ethnic Estonian community.

The dip in ratings, from 28 percent in April, to 19 percent this month, has more to do with the Cohabitation Act than anything else, and the party will feel injustice if it does not build on their 19 Parliament seats from the last election.

Free Party

Tipped by many to break the five-percent threshold for representation in Parliament, but its leader, Andres Herkel, missed a political play of epic proportions a few weeks ago. The party has billed itself as a new right-wing force with more openness and democracy, similar to IRL but minus the nationalism. And the Cohabitation Act was the perfect bandwagon to draw the 33 percent of IRL supporters who backed more rights for same-sex couples.

Yet Herkel voted against, losing out on a possible liberal exodus - not only of voters, but perhaps the abovementioned IRL politicians. In the process it could have dislodged itself from its small core of supporters, the election unions.

Conservative People's Party

This is one party which regularly fails to attract even the votes of its own party members. The Conservative People's Party, controlled by the Martin Helme clan, will push the Cohabitation Act debate at the elections, and could sway some voters, yet they are speaking to a demographic which is the least likely to vote.

Party of People's Unity

The party has a feel of a one-woman operation, Kristiina Ojuland, and like the Conservative People's Party, it could fail to attract much support beyond its founding core supporters. The latest Emor polls have its support at less than 1 percent.

No major changes on the horizon

As Jürgen Ligi's resignation has shown last week, there are many more twists and plots ahead before the March 1 elections. But according to current standings the Reform Party will win, the Center Party will stay in opposition, while IRL and the Social Democrats will both have enough to form a coalition with Reform and will begin horse-trading in March.

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