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The ABCs of Estonia's Municipal Elections

Source: Photo: Postimees/Scanpix

On October 20, Estonians go to the polls to cast their votes in nationwide municipal elections, an event held once every four years. ERR News has put together this basic guide to explain the process.

What is being decided?

Estonia is administratively divided into municipalities, each with its own government. These governments are tasked with handling local affairs - everything from utilities and infrastructure to education, social support and culture. Municipalities can be cities, towns or rural areas.

There will be 215 elections held around the country on October 20, one for each of the municipalities that will remain after some of the current 226 municipalities merge.

Voters will be choosing who sits on their municipality's city or local council, representative bodies that range in size from seven seats, the legal minimum, to 79 seats in Tallinn. Whichever political party, group or combination thereof holds the majority of seats in these councils controls the local government and decides how the municipality's share of tax money is spent.  

When no single party or group wins a majority in the elections, the elected council members can agree to form coalitions to rule jointly.

The elections take on a unique political significance in Tallinn as the ruling Center Party, which is in opposition at the national government level, has been using the city as its power base for over a decade.

Who is running?

Most of the nearly 15,000 candidates are running as representatives of the nation's four major political parties. From political left to right, they are the Social Democrats, Center Party, Reform Party and IRL. Not all parties are participating in all of the local elections.

In addition, members of 292 citizens' elections coalitions - groups formed specifically for the purposes of the relevant local election - are participating, and there are 102 independent candidates.

Parties and the elections coalitions submit lists of their candidates for each race.

Because of the way votes are divided, parties benefit from every vote for their candidates, even if those candidates don't win or choose not to take a council seat. For this reason, parties regularly employ the controversial practice of using decoy candidates, or "decoy ducks" as they are known in Estonian. These are high-ranking, high-profile politicians who don't intend to step down from their current jobs to take up a local council seat. They are included on the list simply to draw in more votes for the party.

How are the winners determined?

The council seats are given out in two steps.

First, any candidate who receives a certain number of votes is given what's called a personal mandate - a guaranteed spot on the council. The number of votes needed is determined by a simple formula: divide the number of votes cast by the number of seats. So in an election where 7,000 votes were cast and seven council seats were up for grabs, any candidate who garnered 1,000 votes or more gets a personal mandate.

Second, any remaining seats are divided up by the parties or electoral coalitions that received at least 5 percent of the vote, with those receiving the most votes getting more seats. Within each party or coalition, the candidates who received the highest number of votes fill the slots first. There is some reordering involved in cases where a candidate who would have made it in based on the list has also won a personal mandate.

The process in Tallinn is slightly different because it is the only municipality in Estonia that has more than one electoral district. The city's eight electoral districts are apportioned city council seats as follows: Lasnamäe (16 seats), Mustamäe (11), Kesklinn (10), Põhja-Tallinn (10), Nõmme (9), Haabersti (9), Kristiine (8) and Pirita (6). In general, each district counts its votes and apportions seats as if the district were a separate municipality, but there are some differences.

More details can be found here.

Who is eligible to vote?

Municipal elections differ from general elections in that a person doesn't need to be an Estonian citizen to vote. Citizens of other EU countries and anyone with a long-term residence permit for Estonia can participate as well.  

The other basic requirements are that the person is 18 or over and is registered in the Population Register as living in the municipality or electoral district in question.

When and where will voting take place?

Polling stations across the country will be open on election day, October 20, from 09:00 to 20:00. Registered voters should by then have received a Voter's Card, by post or e-mail, telling them the address of their polling station. Potential voters can check their addresses of registration at the website. A list of polling stations by address, in Estonian, can be found here.

The period of advance voting, including the increasingly popular e-voting, begins October 10 and ends October 16.

E-voting, which can be carried out using either a computer and Estonian ID card or a Mobile-ID-enabled smartphone, will be available from 09:00 on October 10 to 18:00 on October 16. Instructions in English can be found here

In addition, at least one polling station in each county - and several in Tallinn and Tartu - will be open for advance voting from October 10 to October 13, 12:00 to 20:00; and all polling stations will be open from October 14 to October 16, at the same hours.  

For voters outside Estonia, the only option in municipal elections is to e-vote in the advance voting period. There will be no polling at embassies.

When will results come in?

Vote counting begins after the polls close at 20:00 on October 20, with the electoral committee of each city or rural municipality responsible for determining the final results.

Unofficial results will be in during the evening already, while official results will not come in before the second half of the week.

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