Martin Mölder: Will the elections winner be left with nothing again?

Martin Mölder.
Martin Mölder. Source: Lauri Varik

The game of coalitions often favors those who act as guarantors for the most options, Martin Mölder finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment as he takes a look at potential ruling coalitions following the 2023 Riigikogu elections.

In hindsight, both the 2015 and 2019 Riigikogu elections took place behind a veil of naivety. The political reality after the elections delivered a public shock. First, people could not believe the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) made the parliament. The reaction was even more painful when the national conservatives multiplied the ranks of their supporters and made the government. This gave rise to a kind of apocalyptical-hysterical mood that, following various strategic considerations, is maintained to this day.

Nothing to match the hysteria happened in the real world. Estonian democracy did not collapse and was rather strongest it had been for years in terms of party competition. We also did not fall out of the civilized world. It is not as simple as all that. But are we prepared for the upcoming elections and all of its potential results this time? Are we prepared to see Martin Helme become Estonia's prime minister? There is a considerable chance of that happening.

A lot can change in two months. It seemed completely realistic for the Center Party to win leading up to the 2019 elections. Polls spoke in their favor. But the last two months saw support for Center dwindle and the Reform Party bounce back. In the end, the squirrels (Reform mascot – ed.) won with a comfortable 6-percent lead. However, strategic mistakes made thereafter caused them to lose the privilege of forming the government. Could we see a repeat of this in March 2023?

According to recent polls, Reform enjoyed a comfortable lead in front of EKRE at year's end. This came to over 7 percent in Norstat ratings. Of course, the gap could be closed in time for elections.

In truth, upsetting the balance of powers two months before elections requires very little change. It is a core characteristic of the Estonian parliamentary system and a guarantee of our democracy that no one can rule alone. Even though we experienced it for a brief spell last year (Reform's minority government between switching partners – ed.) A party's strength depends on that of its allies. Helping potential allies could even prove more important than concentrating on one's own strengths, as opposed to running them down.

The two largest parties in any system almost always function as centers of gravity around which governments could form. Ideologically speaking, Reform could find suitable partners in the Social Democrats (SDE) and Eesti 200. While EKRE would rather marry Center and Isamaa.

Considering parties' red lines, a Reform-Center government remains a theoretical possibility too, while this is probably not the first choice of either partner. And that is largely that. The Riigikogu could hardly yield different majority governments as it is difficult to imagine Eesti 200, SDE or Reform sharing a cabinet with EKRE.

The balance of powers between the two conceivable trios (Reform, SDE and Eesti 200 vs EKRE, Center and Isamaa – ed.) has been quite fragile since last fall. Neither has managed to open up a comfortable lead, with Reform governments having the necessary votes one day only to lose them the next. The preferences of Center and Isamaa will be key. And we might speculate that they will gravitate towards EKRE rather than Reform. Therefore, Reform being sidelined once more [after the elections] is by no means out of the question. The reshuffling of just a few seats [in the parliament] is enough to upend the balance of power.

Based on current Norstat polls, Reform would take 36 seats, EKRE 27, Center 16, Eesti 200 nine, Isamaa seven and SDE six seats.

However, all it would take to tip the balance would be for Isamaa to take one extra seat and SDE to lose one. This would leave Reform, SDE and Eesti 200 one seat shy of a three-way coalition. It would open the door to a Reform, Eesti 200 and Isamaa alliance, while also giving EKRE-Isamaa-Center another lease of life. Center and Isamaa would then be kingmakers rather than Reform or EKRE.

It is likely Reform will not be able to repeat its current rating at elections. Their extra support fell in the party's lap courtesy of the Ukraine war rather than a result of hard work. It is also probable that the Center Party will manage to crawl back a part of its support, while Isamaa are also bound to clock a stronger result than their current rating suggests. Both have proved in the past that they can get their organizations in shape for the duration of election campaigns and bring home the votes. Things are most uncertain for the Social Democrats and Eesti 200. Both will likely make the parliament, while one would be hard-pressed to predict anything more specific.

The game of coalitions often favors those who act as guarantors for the most options. Ruling out working with certain political forces works to reduce one's influence and should therefore not be done lightly, unless one is absolutely sure to gain.

Right now, it does not seem as though ruling out working with certain forces has greatly benefited anyone. Really zooming out to look at the big picture, this can only work in the favor of the Reform Party. If the largest party in the system succeeds in convincing all others to exclude the second largest (which is what happened to Edgar Savisaar's Center Party ten years ago), the former is the only one to benefit as it makes it highly unlikely a government could be formed without their participation. While such a party would secure major influence, everyone else, including political competition and eventually democracy, would suffer.

A single Riigikogu seat can be the difference between which coalitions will prove possible. A single Riigikogu seat equals a little over 5,000 votes and that is not a lot. We are headed into elections were every single vote will count.


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Editor: Kaupo Meiel, Marcus Turovski

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