Expected or confirmed to top their respective parties' candidate lists in Ida-Viru County in the Riigikogu elections next March are Kaido Höövelson, Arvo Aller, Meelis Kiili, Maksim Iljin and Piret Hartman.
Up for grabs in Ida-Viru County (Electoral District 7) will be six mandates, or seats, in the 101-seat Riigikogu.
Estonia's northeasternmost district was previously assigned seven mandates, but due to population changes recently lost one mandate to Harju and Rapla counties (District 4), as announced by the State Electoral Office last week.
Center going into elections in vulnerable state
The opposition Center Party has historically been the sure election winner in the majority Russian-speaking Ida-Viru County. Their margin of support had fallen in the previous Riigikogu elections in 2019, however — still unequivocal at 50 percent of the electoral district's total votes, but down from its 59 percent result in the elections before that in 2015. Current MEP Yana Toom earned a personal mandate again in 2019 with 6,195 votes, but in 2015 had earned nearly twice as many votes — 11,573.
It is believed that this slip is due to lower voter turnout among Center voters in the previous Riigikogu elections.
The party is in an even more difficult position going into the upcoming Riigikogu elections in connection with Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine and the removal of the Soviet Narva tank monument this summer. Russian voters are confused. Center Party chair Jüri Ratas, for example, has defended the removal and relocation of the Narva tank, even as local Centrists wanted it to be left in place. Of Estonia's major political parties, Center has seen the biggest loss in support since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Somewhat surprisingly, Center will be running MP Kaido Höövelson as its top candidate in Ida-Viru County next spring. Toom, the party's top District 7 pick in the previous two Riigikogu elections, had initially announced that she would be running in Tallinn instead. It's now clear that Toom will still be running in Ida-Viru County after all, but now as the party's second candidate. In other words, to attract Center votes.
Absent from Center's list are Mihhail Stalnuhhin, who earned 2,653 and an electoral district mandate in 2019, as well as Martin Repinski, who brought in 976 votes.
The big question is whether Höövelson as Center's top pick will sufficiently speak to the region's Russian-speaking voters, although he does describe himself as fluent in Russian and owns a summer cottage in Ida-Viru County. In the previous elections in 2019, the former sumo wrestler ran for election in Harju and Rapla Counties (Electoral District 4), but earned just 642 votes.
Narva City Council member and ex-mayor Aleksei Jevgrafov will likely be the party's third vote magnet following Höövelson and Toom. A repeat of its previous election result of 13,700 votes will prove difficult for the Center Party.
Will candidate names sustain EKRE's popularity?
The opposition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) is the only party who had finalized and published its 2023 candidate list by the time this article was published in its original Estonian on Thursday. Topping EKRE's candidate list in Ida-Viru County will be former rural affairs minister and current EKRE regional chair Arvo Aller.
Aller will be followed by MP Riho Breivel, EKRE regional chapter deputy chair Andrus Toss, who also served as adviser to Aller during the latter's term as minister, and, somewhat surprisingly, former Reform member Ants Liimets.
According to nationwide polls, it is EKRE that has managed to increase its support among Russian-speaking voters the most this year, boosting its rise to second most popular party among Russian-speaking voters following Center. Whether particular candidates specifically will be able to sustain the popularity of the EKRE brand; in the latest local government elections in 2019, they weren't.
The lack of a strong Russian name may prove an obstacle in the upcoming Riigikogu elections as well. In other words, will some Russian-speaking voters disillusioned with Center võte for EKRE instead, or will they simply not vote?
Breivel was EKRE's top candidate in the previous Riigikogu elections in 2019, where he earned 979 votes and a compensation mandate. Aller, meanwhile, earned 283 votes, falling behind even party mate Kersi Kracht's 373.
Reform banking on former Defense League chief
The coalition Reform Party is tapping longtime Estonian Defense League (KL) chief and Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) reserve Maj. Gen. Meelis Kiili as its top candidate in Ida-Viru County next March. Kiili joined the Reform Party on November 2.
Also running in District 7 will be Jõhvi's current municipal mayor Maris Toomel and former municipal mayor Aivar Surva. Estonian Health Insurance Fund (EHIF) Ida-Viru Department director Anneki Teelahk may also join Reform's ranks.
In the previous Riigikogu elections in 2019, Eerik-Niiles Kross topped Reform's candidate list and with 1,110 votes earned an electoral district mandate. The Reform Party netted 3,769 votes in all in Ida-Viru County, and results in the same ballpark can be expected in the upcoming elections as well.
Representatives of the party have previously told ERR that they're aiming to earn two mandates in Ida-Viru County.
Eesti 200 hopes small city mayor will earn bigger city votes
The nonparliamentary Eesti 200 is fielding Narva-Jõesuu Mayor Maksim Iljin as its top candidate in Ida-Viru County. Iljin has previously told regional paper Põhjarannik that he had been courted by other parties as well, including Center and the Social Democratic Party (SDE), but it was Eesti 200 that offered him top billing.
Iljin is popular in Narva-Jõesuu, but the big question is whether he will manage to attract votes from the county's other, bigger cities as well.
Joining him on the party's candidate list will be Eesti 200 Narva chapter chair and Narva City Council deputy chair Denis Larchenko.
Eesti 200 chair Lauri Hussar told ERR that negotiations are still ongoing with a few more people, regarding whom he doesn't yet want to publicly comment.
Social Democrats lost Raik, likely mandate too
The coalition Social Democratic Party (SDE) had been very hopeful that Katri Raik, Narva's popular mayor, would run next March, if only to attract votes for the party. Raik announced her final decision Monday, however — she wouldn't be running for election to the Riigikogu in 2023, not even merely in name. This was a major blow to the Social Democrats and may cost them a mandate, but in the worst case scenario could also cost them exceeding the 5 percent election threshold altogether.
Raik earned 2,112 of the 4,008 votes cast for the SDE in Ida-Viru County in the last Riigikogu elections; in the local government elections held last fall, Raik earned 4,512 votes in the city of Narva alone.
The party has chosen Minister of Culture Piret Hartman as its top candidate in District 7. Hartman hasn't previously run for election to the Riigikogu, but is a native of Püssi and has been involved for years in the integration field. She doesn't speak Russian fluently enough to participate in Russian-language election debates, however, which reduces her opportunities to introduce herself as a candidate among Russian-speaking voters.
Nonetheless, Hartman won't be hampered by a lack of can-do spirit, which remains a persistent problem for several other well-known Social Democrats.
Joining Hartman on the SDE's list in Ida-Viru County will be party secretary general Eduard Odinets, who earned 573 votes in the 2019 elections.
Isamaa struggling to find lead candidate
Similarly to Reform, the coalition Isamaa has resorted for years to bringing outside candidates in to Ida-Viru County for Riigikogu elections, including Siim Kiisler in 2019 (379 votes), Anvar Samost in 2015 (761 votes) and Erki Nool in 2011 (1,397 votes).
It will likely be doing the same for its top candidate again this time, although Isamaa itself doesn't yet know who that might be. One party representative said that one can expect a surprise name; another said that everything still remains open. A third, meanwhile, admitted that there aren't any good options at all.
Lüganuse Municipal Mayor Marja-Liisa Veiser, who with 448 votes was the party's most successful vote magnet in the electoral district in 2019, will definitely be running for election on Isamaa's list next March. The party also wants to see Virve Linder run on its list, who has made the news recently as the potential new mayor of Kohtla-Järve.
Ida-Viru County party chapter board chair Aivo Tamm will definitely be running for election on Isamaa's list as well, in any case.
Tõnis Kons, a board member of the newcomer Parempoolsed, said that the party hasn't yet confirmed their final candidate lists, which is why it will still be a little while before they announce their top picks by electoral district.
"Our final lists will likely be published in January, right before the lists are officially registered," Kons specified.
Johanna Maria Tõugu, co-chair of the nonparliamentary Estonian Greens, told ERR that their party was in talks with Narva City Council chair Vladimir Žavoronkov as well as in touch with Ivan Sergejev.
Greens deputy chair Timur Sagitov nonetheless later confirmed to ERR that both of the party's potential picks had passed on the offered opportunity.
The 2023 Riigikogu elections, in which all of the Estonian parliament's 101 seats are up for election, will be held on Sunday, March 5.
MPs are elected to the Riigikogu for a four-year term.
Editor: Aili Vahtla