Experts: Parties took no big risks with Riigikogu electoral lists

From left, Urmas Jaagant, Tõnis Saarts and Ott Lumi.
From left, Urmas Jaagant, Tõnis Saarts and Ott Lumi. Source: Siim Lõvi/Priit Mürk/ERR/Ott Lumi's personal collection.

Estonia's political parties have not taken any big risks in setting up their candidate lists for this year's Riigikogu elections, which has had the net result of there being few new faces, journalist Urmas Jaagant, doctor of political science Ott Lumi and political scientist Tõnis Saarts find.

The three experts (pictured) were responding to questions from ERR.

Eesti Ekspress politics journalist Urmas Jaagant says this year's Riigikogu elections lists are playing it safe. "Topics that are at the top of the societal agenda, especially Russian aggression in Ukraine, do not permit other discussions to enter the picture very easily, so the lists must also take this into account."

"Those who might otherwise have been stronger advocates on certain topics, who could have entered the frame, might normally also have been wise to have gone ahead with, but this time it is not quite like that," Jaagant said.

"The Center Party, but especially the Reform Party, are so dead set on this that both parties are running those we are used to seeing at the top of lists. The Reform Party has only one newcomer among the first 30 of its general list – namely family doctor Karmen Joller (who rose to prominence during the Covid pandemic-ed.)," Jaagant said.

"In the case of the Center Party, the fact that they likely need to ensure that the party's big hitters get into the Riigikogu, but probably from among fewer seats, also plays a role. None of this plays towards taking any risks in the lists above," Jaagant assessed.

Jaagant placed Kaido Hövelson, who had a long and successful sumo career in Japan, as an exception, so his topping Center's list in the Ida-Viru County electoral district is in fact quite a risky step, he said.

Tõnis Saarts, a political scientist at Tallinn University's Institute of Social Sciences, says he also agrees with the assessment of the safe approach in the lists, whereby political parties try to put those figures at the top who are well-known either nationally or locally. "Recognition of course counts, it has given weight in previous elections, but parties have of course in the past used other strategies [too]," Saarts said.

Both Jaagant and Ott Lumi said that in the case of the Reform Party, quite a lot of people wanted to run for office from its ranks, meaning Reform faced instead the question of how to offer people the seats they wanted.

SDE have put their well-know politicians lower down the lists

According to Urmas Jaagant, the Social Democrats (SDE) have put forward candidates who are expected to be towards the end of the individual or district mandate lists, in order to retain compensation mandates for those who might need to be helped into the parliament (due to the vagaries of the d'Hondt system of proportional representation, used in Estonian elections-ed.).

Saarts added that this has worked in different ways for SDE in different elections. "I don't particularly believe that the order in which the candidates are on the list is in fact the main factor which will affect the party's election result."

The SDE list also reflects "face" of the party's chair, Lauri Läänemets, Jaagant said. "Those people are higher up who might be considered favored by Läänemets," he said.  This tendency is not so apparent on Center and Reform's lists, he said.

In Lumi's view, SDE were also lucky that prominent politicians like MEP Marina Kaljurand and Raimond Kaljulaid did not hesitate much before agreeing to run.

In Lumi's view, SDE were also lucky that prominent politicians like MEP Marina Kaljurand and Raimond Kaljulaid did not hesitate much before agreeing to run.
"The fact that these people were able to run definitely represents a coup for SDE. In their case, we are talking about a result of between five and 10 seats," Lumi said.

Eesti 200 list stronger than expected

Both Saarts and Jaagant said that while the public did not seem to have high expectations for non-parliamentary party Eesti 200's list, it has produced a significantly stronger list than anticipated.

The party is contesting its second Riigikogu election after being founded in 2018.

"They got quite a few big-name additions at the last minute," Jaagant said.

Saarts pointed out that even so, Eesti 200 does not and cannot feature as many well-known persons as on the lists of the older, established (meaning Isamaa, Center, Reform, EKRE and SDE – ed.) political parties. 

"The organization of the veteran political parties is significantly more extensive and better established; they have longer political experience. We cannot assume that the Eesti 200 list would be as strong as, for example, that of the Reform Party. If you have never been in government, you cannot assume that these people will be so familiar to the public (the party has one former Isamaa minister in Margus Tsahkna – ed.)."

Influence of Eesti 200 and Parempoolsed, on Isamaa's list

ERR also asked the experts whether the list of an even newer party, Parempolesed, founded last autumn, and that of Eesti 200, in both of whose ranks former Isamaa members are running, have in some way either influenced or weakened the Isamaa batting order.

Saarts said he did not think so. "I wouldn't say that Isamaa's list is now significantly anu weaker. But it is possible that in some electoral districts for Isamaa, there would have been somewhat better chances of getting a few more votes if the [ex-Isamaa] Parempoolsed candidates had stayed on board, but it is difficult to assess that the election result will give any indication of that.

Parempoolsed were formed round a kernel of ex-Isamaa leading members.

Urmas Jaagant said Isamaa's list was weaker precisely because they had lost quite a lot of their people to Parempoolsed, while some able people have completely given up running (for instance Viktoria Ladõnskaja-Kubits, once heralded as a paragon of integration, and former finance minister Sven Sester – ed.). "At the same time, they have added supporters of the party's current political direction," Jaagant added.

That Parempoolsed got a full list together at all – which they did later than the other parties but in time for the registration deadline last week – was also a surprise, Jaagant added.

Smaller proportion of new names on the list

Tõnis Saarts noted that not all political parties are carrying very prominent people in all the electoral districts. "The assumption that each party could come up with 10-20 names in each district who everyone knows nationwide, would in fact only leave us with one party," he said, adding: "I can't imagine how that would be possible."

Urmas Jaagant pointed to what he called a wider and deepening problem. "It is not so straightforward for political parties to find people who are willing to undergo this campaign. I don't know if they think they won't get that much back from the process, be it due to the wage, or the opportunity to really implement their ideas or not."

"People also have increasing awareness of how things actually work in the Riigikogu and how much opportunity there is to stand out with your issues, plus how much you have to monitor the party's discipline," he added.

Nonetheless the desire of people connected to state defense to run for the Riigikogu has risen, in the current security climate, he said.

Ott Lumi, however, observed that Isamaa did stand out, by placing new people on the lists. In the case of Eesti 200, however, according to Lumi, the presence of former members of other parties alongside existing party members is notable.

Political parties got stuck on their Ida-Viru County lists

One idiosyncratic electoral district is Ida-Viru County, in the northeast of Estonia, where, according to experts, the parties have had quite a headache with the preparation of their running orders. For example, the Center Party, for whom Ida-Viru County has traditionally been a bedrock, has put Kaido Höövelson at the top of the list there, though he does not seem to speak to the local population that much.

Most of Ida-Viru County's larger settlements are majority Russian-speaking.

Tõnis Saarts said Center's position in Ida-Viru County has been weakening for years.

"This was also seen at the last local elections [in 2021]. So yes, this is a new phenomenon for Ida-Viru County, in which the Center Party is also having difficulties in getting its list together there, and also in finding attractive front-runners," Saarts said.

This has been caused by spats within the party, and in the local party organization, rather than by Center not adequately addressing its Russian-speaking voters, he added.

At the same time, it has been observable for many years that the region and the electoral district has been a particularly tough nut to crack for other parties, for instance Reform and Isamaa. "It's a difficult district because of its demographics," Saarts noted.

Urmas Jaagant concurred, adding that political parties only have themselves to blame for this. "Not much has been invested there in order to build up such strong names. The question is, how many opportunities there are, because it has certainly been a difficult area for almost all political parties," said Jaagant.

Do voters choose party or candidate?

The Riigikogu elections are rather party-based, Saarts said, while local government and European Parliamentarty elections are more candidate-based (the next European election is in 2024; in 2019 Riigikogu and European elections fell in the same year and were a little over two months apart – ed.).

"The electoral system at Riigikogu elections favors people voting according to political party preference," he added.

Jaagant also said that the party brand plays more of a role. "Because, as stated, the topic of security is one that is quite firmly attached to the image of one or two political parties. Individuals may play a smaller role there," Jaagant went on.

At the same time, he said, it can also be observed that political parties are hedging on strong individual figures. "It can also be seen from the upper reaches of the party lists that none of them have forgotten about this. Among the top three candidates*, we are mostly seeing old hands; familiar names who are very strong politicians and who should still speaks to those who go to vote, somewhat."

Ott Lumi said Eesti 200 has paid more attention to the personality factor, however. "They have this type of a "new power" effect (an Eesti 200 "superheroes" poster and online campaign hints at this further-ed.). We can certainly see in their case that relatively unknown young people can get a surprisingly large number of votes this time," he forecast.

Isamaa, too, as a fairly personalities-based selection, compared with the brand-based approach of Reform or the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE).

Jaagant was of the same opinion. "EKRE's brand is so strong that the personalities of candidates can play less of a role than in other political parties."

"At the same time, at the last local elections, the same hope did not yield much in the way of results. But their campaign will definitely be stronger this time, because the state funding has been very good for four years for the 19 mandates so far. The leading figures all are well-known players in the districts."

EKRE has 19 seats; the funding Jaagant referred to was state subsidies provided to all political parties in proportion to their Riigikogu representation. As third largest party by seats, the decade-old EKRE gets a larger sum than most other parties.

Finally, Ott Lumi noted, the Center. SDE and Eesti 200 have all also paid special attention to the positioning of women in their electoral lists. "It can be seen that extra effort has been made to bring women into politics," he added.

27 current, sitting MPs (ie. a little over quarter of the chamber), and six government ministers, plus the prime minister, are women.

*"Top" candidates here is not making a qualitative so much as a quantitative judgment on electoral lists. The d'Hondt system requires parties run ordered lists in each district and also nationally, and it is for this precise reason they put most of their "vote magnets" here, in the hopes that excess votes once these candidates have clinched a seat can be distributed to candidates lower on the list, who would not have own a seat in their own right.


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Editor: Aleksander Krjukov, Andrew Whyte

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