Experts on March 5 election: Center voters more reticent than ever before

Mari-Liis Jakobson and Aivar Voog, with host Johannes Tralla, on Tuesday's edition of 'Esimene stuudio'.
Mari-Liis Jakobson and Aivar Voog, with host Johannes Tralla, on Tuesday's edition of 'Esimene stuudio'. Source: ERR

The preferences of Center Party Russian-speaking voters are not as clear ahead of this year's Riigikogu elections as they have been in the past, both Tallinn University political scientist Mari-Liis Jakobson and Aivar Voog, research expert at Kantar Emor, find.

A poll conducted by Kantar Emor commissioned by ERR's Estonian news department last week found support for the Center Party fell to 13.4 percent (the support was 16.4 percent a week earlier).

Center voters are a little more hesitant this time around, meaning it is not known how motivated they are to vote whatsoever, Jakobson found.

Appearing on ETV politics head-to-head show "Esimene stuudio" on Tuesday, Jakobson said. "First of all, we are talking about Russian-speaking voters, whose support patterns have changed a lot compared with the last election in 2019."

"Within the Russian-speaking electorate at present the Center Party has seen 50-60 percent support, or even a little less. Certainly, this segment is a little hesitant on whether to vote for the Center Party. I believe that the war that is going on in Ukraine and which forces a second look in the direction of Moscow will also change Estonia, making participation in elections generally more difficult for many people," she went on.

Also appearing on "Esimene stuudio", Aivar Voog noted that while the support of the Center Party in Tallinn has remained more or less at a constant level, a question mark hangs over support for the party in Ida-Viru County. According to Voog, Ida-Viru County voters stand out by their a clearly lower turnout levels, at least so far, in the first two days of advance voting (as of the broadcast-ed.).

"Ida-Viru County is also seeing more than a few former supporters of the Center Party being mopped up by others, for instance independent candidate (and ex-Center member-ed.) Mihhail Stalnukhin, plus the United Left Party (EÜVP), some of whose candidates have clearly expressed pro-Moscow or pro-Putin positions," Voog said.

Voog added that whereas in the past the Center Party had received about 50 percent of the Ida-Viru County Russian vote, this time they may not breach the 30-percent mark.

"Plus if you take into account that voter turnout is also lower there, due to the abundance of information characteristic of Tallinn and the Estonian media being replaced by a slightly different media and an emptier street scene in Narva (referring to on-street canvassing-ed.), since there are not as many political parties active as in the capital , then this passivity may be amplified further. Even this small number can lead to a very bad outcome, especially with Center's results, since the majority of their voters have been Russian-speaking," he went on.

A lower voter turnout has long been seen as detrimental to Center in particular, while this effect in Ida-Viry County was already evident at the last general election in 2019, when turnout was nearly 20 percentage points lower there than the overall national average (of 63 percent).

At the same time, the Reform Party is also facing a decline in support nationwide right now, which has lead to a tighter election race as we enter the final straight; Reform does, however, Voog said, seem to have some "random" or arbitrary voters, popping up and down, which may affect its rating.

With the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) the recent stand-off between party leader Martin Helme and chief of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Gen. Martin Herem has influenced support in some parts of the country.

Voog said: "They certainly won't find much support in Northern Estonia and Tallinn, but they gave found support, for example, in South Estonia and in the Pärnu County area (a traditional EKRE stronghold-ed), where there has been dissatisfaction expressed towards the government's policy. Then should someone there express dissatisfaction with a major institution (such as the army-ed.), the result is they will immediately find support."

Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) have not been able to significantly increase their support according to recent polls. Jakobson explained this in terms of them facing increased competition.

"SDE are definitely competing for voters to a certain extent, maybe somewhat less with the Center Party, but with Eesti 200 and possibly with the Greens as well. We know about SDE in general as the classic 'second choice' for many, that is, they compete with other political parties more intensively than, for example, the Reform Party.

"To some extent Isamaa has the same story. In the so-called more conservative camp, EKRE exists as a potential alternative, and in the more liberal camp, both Parempoolsed (contesting their first ever election-ed.) and Reform are alternatives."

The results for the smaller political parties on election day may vary more from the opinion poll results than that for larger parties (partly because by their very nature the smaller parties, by support, present a smaller statistical sample in any given survey, and/or have more scope for moving in one direction or another, than Reform, EKRE or, to a lesser extent Center, and possibly even Eesti 200).

Voog noted that: "Isamaa and SDE have been in this situation precisely because they are somewhat the second choice for many people, and the problem with second-choice political parties is that you can both succeed and you can fail; too much is left to chance."

"The bigger parties have things more or less installed. They are first choices, and their rating to materialize as actual results is far more likely than it is for the smaller parties," Voog went on.

"However. There is one exception to the rule, namely the Center Party, which is a big party, it is true, but they depend a lot more on Russian-speaking voters, and we haven't been able to test the water, on how active they are in Ida-Viru County," Voog went on (Center's support is more rock solid with Russian-speaking voters in Tallinn – ed.).

Overall, EKRE has seen the most stable support levels in recent months, Jakobson noted, adding that with voters of some other parties such as SDE, something approaching tactical voting might take place.

"I think that the fact that the core EKRE voter tends not to have a secondary preference could play a major role here. They are connected to their party and are more convinced of their political preferences. On the more liberal end of the spectrum, it may be that perhaps an SDE voter sees, for example, that they don't know if the party will make it over the 5 percent threshold [needed to win seats in a given district] and so asks themselves whether he should suddenly switch track to the Reform Party instead," Jakobson said, adding that SDE and Isamaa are by most recent polls ahead of the threshold.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael

Source: 'Esimene stuudio', interviewer: Johannes Tralla.

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