Analyst: Estonia 200 continued support may hinge on marriage referendum ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Political analyst Martin Mölder.
Political analyst Martin Mölder. Source: ERR

The recent trend for rising support for non-parliamentary party Estonia 200 is unsustainable, according to one analyst, though if it can adequately use the marriage referendum issue as a rallying point, the party may be able to keep up its current popularity.

Martin Mölder, researcher at the University of Tartu's Johan Skytte Institute for Political Studies, says the two most significant trends of late have been the rise and rise of Estonia 200, now in third place in support levels after Reform and Center for several weeks, and also the fall in proportion of non-committed voters.

The two phenomena are likely related, with many previously unpledged voters – the figure has fallen from 28 percent of respondents to 20 percent in recent weeks, at least according to results from pollsters Norstat – expressing support for Estonia 200.

Analyst: Ratings don't win elections

However, this means nothing if not translated into electoral results, Mölder said.

"What might the coming year bring us? First of all, it is very likely that the Estonian 200 will not be able to maintain its support at such a high level," Mölder said.

However, a good proportion of this hinges on the planned referendum on the definition of marriage. Should this go ahead in April as planned, it will be useful, perhaps even vital, for Estonia 200 in consolidating their support, Mölder said.

Estonia 200's stance is that marriage should not be defined legally as between one man and one woman exclusively, and the party supports same-sex marriage unions, generally speaking.

The two opposition parties – Estonia 200 narrowly missed out on picking up Riigikogu seats at the March 2019 elections – Reform and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) are expected to kick off 2021's parliamentary work with the aim of halting the referendum, which would ask a simple yes-no question on whether marriage should be defined as above (as it is in the Family Law Act – ed.) or not.

Analyst: Opposition playing risky game with marriage referendum

However, such a tactic may backfire, Mölder went on.

He said: "The vast majority of voters support referenda in general, and would also take part in the planned referendum on marriage, making [opposition efforts to block it] a very risky maneuver. This will certainly have an impact on Reform and SDE's ratings."

Both parties have seen a recent, slight fall in support, while the three coalition parties' support has, on balance, remained constant.

Marriage referendum bill seeing a lengthy birthing process

The marriage referendum was originally a project of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), but all three coalition parties – Center and Isamaa are the other two – had their names on the bill going through the Riigikogu.

Originally, it was slated to take place at the same time as the October 2021 local elections – the next election in Estonia – and to insert the preferred definition into the constitution, should a "yes" vote prevail.

The bill has passed its first reading but parliament has now broken up for Christmas and the New Year.

However, following pressure on the issue – critics said holding a referendum and election side-by-side would confuse the electorate and also create a two-tier voting scenario (whereas all Estonian residents can vote in local elections, only citizens can vote in referenda – ed.) - and also expert opinion that the constitution is protected from being amended on the basis of just one referendum, this was rowed back to an April vote and retaining the current or similar wording of the Family Law Act.

Technical issues also played their part in the timing; the referendum vote will be electronic-only and a new version of the system used needs to have been debugged and tested ahead of the vote.

EKRE, original sponsors of the referendum, has for some time been posing as the party of direct democracy, and has even looked to Switzerland for possible inspiration.

EKRE, original sponsors of the referendum, has for some time been posing as the party of direct democracy, and has even looked to Switzerland for possible inspiration.

Overall observations: Uncommitted voters fall in number, opposition weakening, coalition stable

In reflecting on the recent ratings as a whole, Mölder noted that: "While at the beginning of this year, the share of voters without a party preference in Norstat's ratings was 28 percent, as of now, their share has fallen below 20 percent. And while the outgoing year started with a seven percent support for Estonia 200, it has now grown to 16.5 percent," Mölder said.

"As for the relative support of other parties, we can see that the coalition has maintained its position well, while that of the opposition has weakened. Support for the government parties has remained virtually unchanged over the year."

"Support for Isamaa was at the beginning of the year and is still a little over six percent, support for the Center Party has remained close to 22 percent and that of EKRE somewhere between 14 percent and 15 percent. At the same time, the relative support for the two opposition parties has fallen – the Reform Party's rating was 33.4 percent at the beginning of the year and is now 28.8 percent, and support for SDE has fallen from around 10 percent, to 7.5 percent."

"Furthermore, in the final months of the year, Isamaa has improved its position, and with the declining support for SDE, the ratings of the two have now converged very close to each other," Molder added.

Battleground in attracting Russian vote

Of other recent party support phenomenon, Martin Mölder noted falling Center support among the Russian-speaking populace since the March 2019 general election – when it had already fallen significantly – while EKRE has mopped up some of these votes despite being an avowedly nationalist Estonian party.

At present, EKRE can claim nearly 10 percent of Russian voter-support, Mölder said.

EKRE's natural enemy, SDE, is also competing for these votes, which may see something of a show-down come next autumn, the analyst went on.

Finally, SDE and the coalition Isamaa are almost neck-and-neck in support levels, Mölder noted. While on very different platforms, the two parties have been in office together before, most recently until April 2019 when they were in a coalition with Center. A deal between the two parties then-leaders, Jevgeni Ossinovski (SDE) and Margus Tsahkna (Isamaa – now with Estonia 200) is widely blamed for removing Reform, and with it prime minister Taavi Rõivas, via a vote of no-confidence in November 2016, and installing Jüri Ratas and Center instead, who have remained in office ever since.

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