Local elections 2021: Don't expect the unexpected

Local election
Local election "pop-up" polling station in Tallinn on October 11, 2021. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

What can we expect from the local elections? Nothing unexpected, political scientist Martin Mölder told ERR News in a recent interview.

Advance voting for Estonia's local elections will start on Monday, while election day is next Sunday, October 17. More than 20,000 foreign residents living in Estonia can participate.

But what are the main issues in Estonia's biggest cities, Tallinn and Tartu, and what can we expect from the results?

ERR News spoke with University of Tartu researcher and political scientist Martin Mölder to find out.

Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive information available about foreign voters or how they vote.

Martin Mölder. Autor/allikas: ERR


In general, the issues that dominate the local elections are connected with the running of cities, their future development and the services provided by city governments.

In the capital, discussions have focused on urban development, such as bike lanes and the future of Linnahall, as well as the reduction of kindergarten fees.

However, for the parties, this isn't what matters the most.

"At the end of the day, what is at stake in Tallinn is the power of the Center Party, and that is what the campaigning is all about," Mölder said.

The center-left party has an absolute majority in Tallinn and currently rules alone. The situation has been the same for more than a decade. However, recent polling indicates the party may be forced into a coalition after a fall in support even though it will remain the most popular party in the capital.

"The Center Party has to hold its ground and everybody else is looking forward to dethroning [Mayor of Tallinn] Mihhail Kõlvart," he said.

Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail kõlvart (left). 

At the last local elections in 2017, Kõlvart, who has been mayor of the capital since 2019, collected more than 24,000 votes. This was one of the biggest mandates collected at the election. He ran in Lasnamäe, Tallinn's biggest district.

But why is he so popular?

"He's a good politician, obviously. Kõlvart took over the position [former Center Party chairman] Edgar Savisaar had in Tallinn but has also been using all the resources available to Tallinn City Government to promote his image and role of the mayor," he said.

"If you run there it is sort of a 'slam dunk'. Among Russian-speaking residents, in Tallinn the support for Center Party is above 80 percent, almost at 90 percent."

Recent polling shows he is still the most popular choice for mayor of Tallinn.


The issues up for debate are similar in Estonia's second largest city, Tartu. These include kindergarten fees, bike lanes and development plans for the open market and a potential new conference hall.

"I don't see any kind of fundamental divide or a dimension which structures politics in Tartu," Mölder said.

One notable theme is the planned City Center Cultural Center (Süku) which may be built in a park in the city center.

The new center, which is included on the government's list of important cultural items for future development, is being proposed by the Reform Party-led coalition. Other parties argue it should not be built in the center.

Mölder said this has become a campaign issue because the current council has proposed and promoted it.

"Now everyone else has to take some kind of a stance as well, and now there is a debate over it," the researcher said.

A design for Süku. Source: Reformierakonna valimisreklaam

He said the debate around SüKu may be a wider symptom of what is important to the city's inhabitants. Other battlegrounds in recent years have been the rejection of a planned pulp mill, and criticism of various real estate developments.

"So one common denominator of all of these is the living environment, so maybe this is something which is more fundamental in Tartu politics, different ideas and different understandings of how to develop this environment," Mölder said.

Similarity to Tallinn is the desire of opposition parties to reduce the power of the leading coalition parties. In Tartu, the center-right Reform Party is, and has historically been, the most popular.

"It's still a struggle for power. The position of the Reform Party in Tartu is perhaps not as strong as the position of the Center Party in Tallinn. They [Reform] will probably win the elections in Tartu but not with such a safe margin as the Center Party in Tallinn," he said.

While there is no polling about the City of Tartu for the local elections, nationwide polling shows the EKRE has been snapping at the party's heels for some time. The gap is now approximately 5 percent. Eesti 200 may also catch the eye of some of Reform's voters, Mölder said.

An Eesti 200 campaign election. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR


The Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) has been riding high in the polls for the last month, but how will they do at the local election?

The party has been trying to target Russian-speaking voters to increase their support level among people with a more conservative worldview - but will this work?

Mölder is not convinced: "Here we may see a gap between ideas and what happens at the polling booth."

Even though many voters from this demographic may agree with EKRE's socially conservative worldview, more practical issues could hamper their ability to vote. The party does not have many well-known faces on its lists, so voters may not know who to cast a ballot for.

"For this reason, I think, the support for EKRE among Russians - it could be considerable - but it is probably not as high as the national polling indicates. When people answer those questions they are thinking of a general match of worldviews and not candidates," he said.

Mölder said this may also hurt the party at the national elections and could also be a problem for the non-parliamentary party Eesti 200.

"They do not have candidates that people would recognize even if they agree with the general message," he said.

EKRE candidates in Järvakandi Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

Local elections vs national elections

Based on the outcome of the local elections, will it be possible to draw conclusions about the next general election in March 2023?

Mölder doesn't think so. It is "hard to draw a direct parallel" between local and national elections, as local politics are very different across the country, the researcher said.

He said one indicator could be comparing how the positions of parties change between this local election and the last. But "nothing surprising" will be the likely result.

EKRE may gain more support than four years ago, the Center Party may lose support, Eesti 200 will likely gain ground: "But we already know that from polling which has been done for the parliamentary elections. So, in that sense, there will be no great surprises when we compare the results," he said.

Mölder said the results may also show which areas parties need to improve on to do well at the national elections, such as organization on a local level.

However, the researcher said there are still 18 months to go before the next election in March 2023 and "anything can change in that time".


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Editor: Helen Wright

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