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.

The name field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 1024 characters

Message forwarded to the editor

This Ip-address has limited access

See also

There are no comments yet. Be the first!

Reply to comment

Reply to comment

Laadi juurde ({{take2}})
The name field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 1024 characters
Add new comment
  • foto
    Opinion digest: Open Enterprise Estonia’s consultation services and assessments to competition

    Enterprise Estonia handed out advice to companies, and assessed whether or not they should receive public support, without being economically accountable, lawyer Taivo Ruus wrote in a Postimees opinion piece on Monday. This needed to change, and these activities delegated to professionals.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: The Reform Party’s new role

    After 17 years in government, Reform needed to find to a new role, and instead of being the manager of the Estonian state become a debater. How the party would get used to its new position, no longer able to dictate the political agenda, remained to be seen, said political scientist Mari-Liis Jakobson in a comment on Vikerraadio on Friday.

  • foto
    Andrus Karnau: Minister of Rural Affairs likely to be replaced

    Speaking on Sunday’s Raadio 2 broadcast of "State of the Union," radio show host Andrus Karnau found that the scandal to break out last week involving Martin Repinski’s goat farm was likely to culminate on Monday in his replacement as a minister of the newly-installed Estonian government.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Baltic states on front line of new Cold War

    While the Baltic states would prefer full defensive capability, NATO is emphasizing its reinforcements’ function as a deterrent. The alliance would have to round off its military presence in the area with diplomacy, and political stability and dedication to liberal democratic values would play an important role maintaining the West’s solidarity, columnist Ahto Lobjakas wrote in an opinion piece published in daily Postimees.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Putting Rail Baltica in its strategic context

    In an opinion piece in daily Postimees, former EU commissioner Siim Kallas points out that Rail Baltica goes far beyond considerations of its route on Estonian soil, and the money the government will have to invest. On the contrary, there is a broader European meaning that includes considering the strategic situation of Estonia.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Dynasties and democracy don't go well together

    Speaking about the recent US presidential elections on Vikerraadio’s Sunday broadcast of "Samost and Rumm," hosts Anvar Samost and Hannes Rumm recognized that Donald Trump’s election win is being considered as the destruction of two political dynasties there, however democracy and dynasties don’t go well together anyway.

  • foto
    Opinion: Estonia’s lasting isolation

    The fact that too many foreign journalists do not understand the Estonian language, and that they have no access to the local political culture and its players, has distorted reports abroad of what happened this week, writes ERR News editor Dario Cavegn.

  • foto
    Alo Lõhmus: Left turns and ‘silent submission’

    The embarrassing conflation of the Reform Party’s self-image with the Estonian state is proof that it is high time they are sent into opposition, says journalist Alo Lõhmus.

  • foto
    Opinion: Getting rid of ruling party's privileges doesn't damage Estonia's reputation

    On Friday, the ministers of the Social Democrats (SDE) and the Pro Patra and Res Publica Union (IRL) began calling back Reform Party members from the boards of state-owned companies and funds. The Reform Party’s reaction was an announcement published on Sunday — a rather strange one, finds ERR News editor Dario Cavegn.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Ärma is more than just numbers

    Ärma Farm’s funding scandal was overshadowing the achievements of Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ presidency, including the fact that Estonia had benefited from state visits that Ilves hosted in Ärma, Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas (Reform) said to ERR on Thursday.

  • foto
    Benno Schirrmeister: Do Estonians dream of electric sheep?

    On a journalist exchange in Estonia, Benno Schirrmeister of Bremen’s TAZ is highly informed, yet a blank slate as far as a foreigner’s experience of Estonia is concerned. In his first op-ed about Tallinn, he spots something beyond IT that Estonia could advertise — but doesn’t.

  • foto
    Erkki Bahovski: Was 1940 approach better than modern journalism's 'war hysteria'?

    Linguist Urmas Sutrop has claimed that Estonian journalism is scaring people with the specter of war. Editor-in-Chief of monthly magazine Diplomaatia Erkki Bahovski, however, doesn’t agree.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Kremlin in danger of losing sense of reality

    According to Ingo Mannteufel, head of the Department for Russia and Europe at Deutsche Welle, there is a possibility of the Kremlin starting to believe its own propaganda, which could lead to dangerous decisions both domestically and internationally.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Estonia’s stagnating politics

    Estonia’s largest political parties had been going through the most serious crisis in their existence, and on top of that they had lost their most important function, namely to formulate a vision of the country’s future, daily Postimees wrote in its Friday editorial.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Putin exploiting power vacuum created by U.S. presidential elections

    According to director of Tallinn’s International Centre for Defence and Security and former ambassador to Russia, Jüri Luik, the increased tensions over the past few weeks between Russia and the West indicate Putin’s wish to exploit the ambiguous mood before the U.S. presidential elections as much as possible.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Time to return to discussing serious issues

    In a stinging opinion piece in published in the daily Eesti Päevaleht, member of the Riigikogu Eerik-Niiles Kross (Reform) condemned the Estonian media as well as the country’s elites for their obsession with what he sees as pointless topics, while disregarding the last few weeks’ unsettling developments concerning Russia.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Legally speaking, everything is proper

    After Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ decade in office, and after he promoted Estonia like no other president did before him, his legacy is now tainted by the fact that he seems to have gone for a substantial state grant in 2006 that he never put to use — and of which he will now pay back just a tenth.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Closer to Warsaw, farther away from Estonia

    In a recent opinion piece in daily Postimees, columnist Ahto Lobjakas wrote that one way to look at Rail Baltic was as a step towards the level other countries had already reached in terms of speed and comfort of their railway connections. The main weakness of this point of view was the fact that in Estonia, it lacked the necessary social context.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Leadership change in Reform needed for potential coalition with Center Party

    For a potential future coalition with the Center Party, the Reform Party needed to change its leader as well, Social Democratic MP and chairman of the Riigikogu’s Foreign Affairs Committee Sven Mikser wrote in a comment on social media on Friday.

  • foto
    Matthew Crandall: President Ilves’ global impact

    The greatest accomplishment of President Toomas Hendrik Ilves is that he branded Estonia as a modern and innovative 21st century country, and brought it out of post-Soviet obscurity, writes Tallinn University’s Matthew Crandall.

  • foto
    The shackles of history and modern life in the fast lane: Estonia's experience in the migration crisis

    The uncertain public performances of Estonian politicians and poor explanatory work were to blame for a considerable increase in public distrust during the migration crisis, found ERR journalist Greete Palmiste, working in Bremen on an international journalists' exchange, in an opinion piece written for German publication taz.die Tageszeitung.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Kersti Kaljulaid on the concepts of ethical nationalism and confident Estonians

    On Friday, Aug. 12, Estonian representative to the European Court of Auditors Kersti Kaljulaid delivered a patriotic speech on the Postimees Stage at the 2016 Opinion Festival in Paide in which she expanded on two words and two respective ideas she found important for her country that were represented by the two letter Es in its native-language name Eesti: eetiline (ethical) and enesekindel (confident).

  • foto
    This mess we're in: Picking up the pieces after Saturday's elections

    From Saturday’s election fiasco to Tuesday’s sudden emergence of a likely cross-party candidate: ERR News editor Dario Cavegn makes an attempt at explaining Estonia’s seemingly chaotic quest to find its next president.

  • foto
    Opinion: The decline of Estonian as a language of science starts abroad

    The Estonian language as a language of science is only sustainable in those subject areas that offer undergraduate courses in Estonian, and with which students begin their university education, finds ERR science portal editor Marju Himma.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Current approach to reform won't help municipalities

    The Center Party’s presidential candidate, Mailis Reps, wrote in an opinion piece published in daily Postimees on Sunday that the Administrative Reform Act was a disappointment to Estonia’s municipalities, and that relations between local and central government were in a crisis.

  • foto
    Opinion: Jüri Nikolajev in response to the Ida-Viru secret memo

    Describing himself as "wearily spiteful" instead of angry, ERR's Narva correspondent Jüri Nikolajev responded to the top secret memo on Ida-Viru County that leaked recently, calling Estonians to figuratively not leave their property laying around if they did not want anyone else to take it for themselves.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Sulev Vedler on the secret memo on Ida-Viru County

    In 2015, the Government Security Committee received a secret memo containing a dark assessment of the future of Ida-Viru County, Estonia's most northeastern and predominantly Russian-speaking county, which was compiled by Ilmar Raag, who worked as a strategic communicatins advisor at the Stenbock House at the time. Estonian journalist Sulev Vedler responded to the memo by compiling various reactions to issues it addressed.

  • foto
    Opinion: Alo Lõhmus on the definition of Estonian citizen by blood

    Journalist Alo Lõhmus explored the right to Estonian citizenship by "jus sanguinis," Latin for right of blood, as it relates to one's eligibility to run for president — an issue which has had particular attention drawn to it recently after members of a competing political party attempted to cast doubt on the status of presidential candidate Marina Kaljurand's Estonian citizenship.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Erkki Bahovski on Finland and the alleged Baltic scheming

    Columnist Erkki Bahovski commented on the curious, decidedly defensive turn that seemed to be taken by Finland's Social Democrats following the release of a lengthy report by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (UPI) which suggested that Russia, in its own self-interest, is attempting to hamper Finland's total integration with the West.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Siim Kallas thinks real estate tax effective way to finance local government

    The Reform Party’s presidential candidate, Siim Kallas, said in an opinion piece published in daily Postimees that an estate tax, more precisely a tax levied on real estate, could be considered to finance local government.