Analysis: Center support slump with Russian-speaking voters continues

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Center Party headquarters in Tallinn. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

At its peak, Center enjoyed support levels of 80 percent or more among Russian-speaking voters. According to February's ratings, the figure is now half that, at 42 percent.

The slide has continued more recently. In December 2020, when Center was in office with the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa, support for Center stood at 59 percent. While Center is still in office, following Jüri Ratas resignation last month it no longer holds the prime minister's seat and is the smalelr of the two coalition parties in terms of MPs – 25 to Reform's 34 – while it had been the largest in the Center/EKRE/Isamaa lineup.

Against that backdrop, Center support fell sharply from 59 percent to 43 percent in January this year, and as noted dropped another percentage point in February.

Center support among Russian-speaking voters now lower than that for remaining parties combined

It also means that more voters of other nationalities – overwhelmingly those with Russian as their native tongue – would vote for the other four parties combined, than they would for Center.

Center remains in the front rank in its traditional support heartland (along with Tallinn) of Ida-Viru County, though the level is even lower than nationwide, at 35 percent. Reform – traditionally not a party popular with many Russian-speaking voters – is second on 24 percent, with the very Estonian EKRE in third place on 19 percent (EKRE actually has 19 seats at the Riigikogu – ed.).

Non-parliamentary party Eesti 200, which hit controversy ahead of the March 2019 general election over a poster campaign in Tallinn aimed at highlighting the linguistic and social divide (i.e. between Estonian speakers and Russian speakers), is next on 12 percent, while the Social Democratic Party (SDE) picked up 7 percent, roughly the same as its support level across Estonia with all nationalities. New Narva mayor Katri Raik is with SDE, but may be running with the Center Party at the local elections later this year.

Reform support significantly ahead of Center's in capital

Nationwide, SDE posted 5 percent support among voters of other nationalities, only three percentage points ahead of the non-parliamentary Green Party, while Eesti 200, Reform and EKRE are all much of a muchness, with 15-16 percent support each among Russian-speakers.

In the capital, Center lags behind Reform significantly (among all voters) on 19 percent of support, the same level as Eesti 200. Meanwhile Reform picked up 32 percent of support, making it the most popular party at the moment.

Traditionally, Center has dominated Tallinn politics, ruling alone with no need for a coalition – as it does at present – while the second city, Tartu, has been a traditional Reform stronghold.

Reasons for lukewarm support at best for the Russian-speaking minority for Reform mostly related to the 2007 removal of a Soviet-era statue in central Tallinn, commemorating World War Two. The statue was relocated to a cemetery elsewhere in Tallinn, but the event nonetheless sparked several nights' rioting and looting, during which one man died, and coincided with a denial of service attack on Estonia's IT systems. Prime Minister at the time was Andrus Ansip (Reform).

Reform has also championed Estonian language-only education.

EKRE, whose heartland is in Pärnu County and southwest Estonia, found 10 percent support in the capital, just ahead of SDE on 8 percent. Isamaa picked up only 3 percent support, meaning if autumn's local elections were held now and the support levels translated to actual votes, the party would win no seats in Tallinn under Estonia's modified d'Hondt system of proportional representation, where the threshold for seats stands at 5 percent.

By age group, Center has retained relatively high levels of support among another traditional demographic amenable to it – the elderly, meaning those over 74 years of age. EKRE continues to do well with the older-middle-aged group (50-74) while Reform and Eesti 200 continue to be the main picks for younger professionals.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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