The Riigikogu elections are over: When will a new coalition enter office?

Stenbock House, the seat of the Estonian government, in the snow. December 2021.
Stenbock House, the seat of the Estonian government, in the snow. December 2021. Source: Tõnu Tunnel

The 2023 Riigikogu election result is known and the Reform Party have won by far the largest number of seats of any single party, at 37. Does this mean that Reform will duly enter office at the helm of a coalition government? Well, probably, though not automatically, as we will find out.

Please note this concerns ongoing developments; updates will be added to the end of the article.

Now the election results are in and the seats distributed by party (pending recounts and appeals), the serious task of getting down to coalition negotiations begins.

The task here is to get a signed agreement of two or more parties (three is the norm), who therefore must seek common ground with each other and need to have a majority (ie. 51 seats at the 101-seat Riigikogu).

Less than that and the coalition may very well not be voted into office by the Riigikogu's MPs in the first place (a necessary step), while even 51 or 52 seats would leave little margin for any coalition MPs leaving their party.

This is the task facing the parties, in the coming weeks.

For instance, last time out, the election was held on March 3, 2019, while the Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition which ensued didn't enter office until the end of April.

Another standard is that coalitions seldom last more than a couple of years – two per four-year election cycle is the norm.

That said, we had three coalitions in the last cycle: Reform/Center entered office in January 2021, replacing Center/EKRE/Isamaa, and lasted to June 2022, while the current Reform/Isamaa/SDE lineup entered office in July 2022.

But back to the present, and election night, March 5, 2023.

Special mention must be made of Eesti 200. The party narrowly missed out on seats at the 2019 election, polling just below the 5 percent threshold that time, but this time around, it has won no fewer than 14, making it the fourth largest party by Riigikogu representation.

This also means we have a return to a six-party Riigikogu. The previous, XIV, Riigikogu consisted of five represented parties.

Process of forming a coalition is set out in the Estonian Constitution

Party negotiating aside, it is easy to forget that the formation of a coalition government in Estonia is an actual Constitutional event, regulated for in that document, and it is this aspect which we will focus on in the following FAQs.

Copy of the Estonian Constitution at a recent constitutional affairs committee sitting at the Riigikogu. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Since the role of the executive, the government, and the legislature, ie. the Riigikgou, are inextricably intertwined, and we've just had an election anyway, we'll have to look at the latter first.

When will the XV Riigikogu and its MPs take office?

Around a month from the time of writing.

There will be a certain amount of musical chairs in that exactly which people sit in the Riigikogu also depends on who can and can't do so.

Even though they may run, government ministers, the Riigikogu board (speaker and two deputy speakers), MEPs and municipal government members, as well as members of some other local, state or European agencies or authorities, may not sit in parliament.

Naturally, the reverse can happen, and they can relinquish these roles and take up a seat.

Be thankful this is not 2019, when a European Election followed in May, hot on the heels of the Riigikogu election.

The Riigikogu building, Toompea Castle, Tallinn.. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Pursuant to the Riigikogu Election Act, complaints regarding election results may be submitted to the National Electoral Committee (VVK) within three days of the election, with five business days needed to resolve them.

These can be appealed on at the Supreme Court, with a 10 business-day turnaround between appeal and ruling.

Once all this has been resolved, the VVK registers those elected to the Riigikogu, and the election results are officially gazetted in the Riigi Teataja, the Riigikogu's official publication.

All-in-all, the dotting of I's and crossing of t's will take around a month, so we can expect the XV Riigikogu to take up its seats no later than some time in the first half of April.

Additionally, EKRE chair Martin Helme has pledged to take the matter of the e-vote to court.

My friend ran in the elections. How will I know if they won a seat?

The provisional list of 101 seats by MP is here. Please note that this is ahead of the formation of a coalition, so all those elected MPs who end up as a minister (or prime minister - Kaja Kallas was the most voted for MP in electoral history in Estonia, but will not sit in the Riigikogu if she returns as head of government) do not take up their Riigikogu seat.

This goes to the next candidate on the ordered list not to have won a seat.

For more on the electoral process in Estonia, see here.

In the meantime, is there a current government ruling over Estonia?

Yes there is.

The Reform/Isamaa/SDE coalition remain in office on a provisional basis until the next coalition deal is signed – even if it were to involve the same three parties, and be headed by the same prime minister.

In practice we have a caretaker administration right now, one which deals with vital issues of state, national security, official duties etc.

Since the dissolution of the XIV Riigikogu on February 23, and ahead of the XV Riigikogu composition taking up its seats, no legislation has or can have been passed, and any which was in the works at that point was either kicked down the road to the next Riigikogu, or scrapped altogether.

Naturally, the economic situation, the security picture and more specific issues like the Nursipalu military zone extension and taxation systems have not gone anywhere.

Once a new coalition deal is inked, the current government will be formally dismissed, and the new one will take its oath of office.

All of this involves the head of state, President Alar Karis.

What is the president's role here?

President Karis has to nominate a prime ministerial candidate.

Under § 78 (9) of the Estonian Constitution, the President of the Republic of Estonia nominates a prime ministerial candidate, which in practice is the leader of the party which won the most seats (in our case, Reform).

President Alar Karis has been in office since August 2021. Source: Raigo Pajula/Office of the President of the Republic of Estonia.

How long does the prime ministerial candidate have to form up their government?

A fortnight from the nomination.

Under the terms of § 89 of the Constitution, a 14-day period follows, where day one is the day immediately following the presidential nomination of the prime ministerial candidate.

The latter is tasked with forming a coalition government in those 14 days, meaning a coalition deal needs to be agreed in that time.

If the party leader with the most seats is the prime ministerial candidate, surely they become prime minister de jure, and de facto?

No they don't.

In 2019, Kaja Kallas fulfilled the above criteria, but was unable to get a coalition together which had a majority. Only the Social Democrats, with 10 seats then, came over to Reform's side, with 34 seats, but this 44-seat potential minority coalition was duly voted down at the Riigikogu.

How many voting rounds does a potential new coalition face at the Riigikogu?

Only one voting round is needed, and it's a straight pass-fail.

When will a new coalition be voted on?

In or by April, most likely.

Once the Riigikogu has been sworn in, and the coalition agreement and lineup agreed upon, the task of voting in the coalition (or not) begins.

All MPs at the 101-seat parliament vote; one would expect all MPs from any party which forms a part of the proposed coalition to vote in favor of it, and potenital opposition MPs not to, but either which way, they need a majority of 51 or more votes.

The prime minister, and government ministers, do not sit in the Riigikogu, it is only their MPs who do the voting – if an MP has been plucked from the Riigikogu for a ministerial post, they will be replaced by a substitute MP from an ordered list, generally from the same party.

If this proposed government receives a majority vote at the Riigikogu, it will enter into office.

Will EKRE enter office again?

Probably not this time.

Reform have consistently said they would not be in coalition with EKRE, and, more-or-less, vice versa.

At least at the national level; the two parties are in coalition in a few local municipalities.

Both SDE and the newcomer party, Eesti 200, have also said they would never strike a deal with EKRE.

The two parties who were in office with EKRE the last time, Center and Isamaa, have seen their joint mandates cut also, to 24 between them, whereas they had well over 30 together, in 2019.

Plus EKRE themselves are on 17 seats where they had had 19 before the election.

What is the international take on the prosepct EKRE in office?

Back in 2019, the participation of EKRE in national coalition talks raised protest from leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group (ALDE) Guy Verhofstadt. 

International pressure such as that, both obvious and less obvious, on Estonia's sovereign governmental talks, won't have gone anywhere, particularly in the current security situation.

For example, Politico recently published a piece virtually calling for the return of Kaja Kallas as prime minister, in effect for Ukraine's sake.

In fairness, in 2019 there was plenty of domestic protest, too, at the prospect of EKRE entering a coalition for the first time; then-president Kersti Kaljulaid could be fairly said to have been one of the foremost opponents, and donned a now-famous sweatshirt emblazoned with a slogan which both parodied an earlier EKRE one and expressed protest at their ascension to government.

If the facial expression does not convey the message, the sweatshirt slogan may do, or vice versa. EKRE leader Martin Helme taking the oath of office before then-President Kersti Kaljulaid back in April 2019, as State Secretary Taimar Peterkop looks on. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Nonetheless, EKRE, with 19 seats, then, entered office in 2019 and remained there to early 2021.

The party is still the second-most supported by votes, and has already talked about taking the small matter of the e-vote to court, however...

What happens if a proposed coalition government fails to pass a Riigikogu vote?

As noted this did happen in 2019, but seems an unlikely outcome this time around.

If the lineup is rejected within the 14-day period by the Riigikogu (or is unable to form a government for some other reason), the President is entitled to pick a second prime ministerial candidate, and the procedure with forming a government and this proposed government being voted on, is repeated.

Reform is so far ahead this time, with 37 seats, while EKRE, Center and Eesti 200 are so close, at 17, 16 and 14 seats apiece, that it seems moribund to talk about a second-string prime ministerial candidate at this juncture.

Nonetheless, bearing in mind Reform do not have an absolute majority on their own, in theory they could fail to strike a coalition deal.

Doing things by the book, the presidential second choice for prime minister (by party representation, as we have seen this would be Martin Helme of EKRE) would then have to set up a new coalition, in the hopes that it has a majority and/or passes a Riigikogu vote.

What happens if the second-choice coalition lineup fails a vote too?

If this second coalition lineup is rejected as well, the right of creating a new parliament passes to the Riigikogu, who should find a new candidate; one who would be able to assemble a coalition with 51 seats or more.

Again, a 14-day period is assigned to accomplish this.

And if this falls through?

If this third Riigikogu-selected candidate also fail to get a majority vote in parliament, the president has to call an extraordinary election, in other words a second general election, and the whole process would start all over again.

The seat of the President of the Republic of Estonia, in Kadriorg, Tallinn. Source: President's office.

In the nearly 32 years of restored Estonian independence, however, extraordinary elections have never been called.

There was talk in some quarters of it happening in June-July last year while Reform were in office alone, as a minority government, but this never amounted to more than that.

Ok. So a coalition government finally passes a Riigikogu vote. When does it enter office?

Within a couple of weeks of that time. In 2019, the Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition was voted through on April 17, the head of state tasked Jüri Ratas with forming a government soon afterwards, and it took its oath before the Riigikogu on April 30.

How will ministerial portfolios be assigned?

Traditionally, the prime minister is picked from the party with the largest number of seats, while the ministerial portfolios have been divided equally. This even has an effect on the number of ministers in a coalition: The Reform/Center bipartite coalition had seven ministers each, totaling 14, whereas the Reform/SDE/Isamaa coalition which followed it had 15 ministers, exclusive of the prime minister, ie. five ministers per party.

However, Reform via party leader Kaja Kallas has indicated that this time around, portfolios might be allocated in proportion to party representation...

Will the current security situation have the effect of expediting the above process, so it doesn't take as long as usual?

Quite possibly.

Certainly, the head of state, President Alar Karis, has called for a swift a conclusion of a sound coalition agreement as is humanly possible.

At the same time, and as we've seen, it took from early June to mid-July last year for a new coalition agreement to be concluded, following Kallas' dismissal of the Center Party from office, and this was already several months into the Ukraine war.

How long will the coalition, once it is sworn in, remain in office?

Based on precedent and custom, around a couple of years. The last coalition to be dissolved, Reform/Center, left office after Kaja Kallas dismissed the seven Center Party ministers from office. Reform remained as a minority government (and there were plenty of constitutional-related discussions about that at the time) from early June to mid-July, when Isamaa and SDE joined Reform in government.

The Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition constitutionally had to break up and leave office after Jüri Ratas stepped down in mid-January, over a real estate corruption scandal involving senior members of his party.

Leaders of the current coalition signing their agreement in July 2022, from left: Lauri Läänemets (SDE), Kaja Kallas (Reform), Helir-Valdor Seeder (Isamaa). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Another interesting point to note here is that Jüri Ratas is current President of the Riigikogu; speaker of the house, in other words, and as such oversees the processes at the legislature which lead to a new coalition being approved.

The seat distribution by party following Sunday's election (subject to official confirmation following appeals, recounts etc.) is:

Reform Party - 37 seats.

EKRE - 17 seats.

Center Party - 16 seats.

Eesti 200 - 14 seats.

SDE - 9 seats.

Isamaa - 8 seats.

You can do the math as to which alignments would get a majority (worldview clashes notwithstanding) and which would not (see also below).

Let's say, Reform have plenty of options before them, this time around...

The June 1992 referendum on the adoption of the present-day Estonian Constitution. Source: Jüri Ratas/Social Media


The above is the procedure from a constitutional perspective, while the full text of the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia (in English) is here.

For how things pan out in terms of finalization of election results, coalition negotiations, the swearing-in of the XV Riigikogu, and the advent of the next coalition, etc. be sure to regularly check ERR News in the coming weeks!

With special thanks to former Chancellor of Justice Allar Jõks for his help in putting together an earlier incarnation of this piece, published in 2019.


What has changed since election day? - a coalition negotiations diary

-On Tuesday, March 7, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas announced that she and her party would be inviting Eesti 200 and SDE to the table for coalition talks. This means Eesti 200 could go from no seats, to being in office, in virtually one step. The parties as noted share a socially liberal worldview, in general, but there are plenty of other issues to hammer out including on taxation.

- On Wednesday, March 8, the prime minister said day one of the Reform-Eesti 200-SDE talks had led her to be "quite optimistic" about their prospects.

- Thursday, March 9

The Social Democrats (SDE) are not entering a coalition government to make budgetary cuts, the party's leader, Lauri Läänemets, says.

Tax rises could be discussed in coalition negotiations as it will not be possible to reduce the budget deficit with cuts alone, Läänemets adds.

- Friday, March 10

Estonia's next government plans to call on NATO members to increase their defense spending to at least 2.5 percent, rising from the current 2 percent.

- Saturday, March 11

The issue of banning the sale of new cars which use fossil fuels divides the three would-be coalition parties from the three opposition parties, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reports.

- Monday, March 13

Coalition talks between the Reform Party, Eesti 200 and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) continued on Monday, this time with a focus on foreign policy and justice.

- Tuesday, March 14

Liisa Pakosta, representing the Eesti 200 party at Estonia's coalition negotiations, said that the party wants a more concrete definition of hate speech.

-Wednesday, March 15

The prospective new coalition government will appoint a special representative to Ida-Viru County.

-Possible coalition planning on ditching 'protection money' scheme.

- Friday, March 17

Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition would make education mandatory up to age 18.

- Monday, March 20

Marriage equality and the Registered Partnership Law's implementation acts will be discussed by politicians at the end of the coalition negotiations.

- Tuesday, March 21

Politicians discussed the abolition of the nationwide free public transport scheme on Tuesday and the creation of a new national cycling strategy. This will not affect Tallinn's free public transport scheme.

- Wednesday, March 22

Maintenance and upkeep will be the new coalition's priorities when it comes to road building. New building projects are assumed to be unlikely.

- Thursday, March 23

The coalition-in-waiting says it wants to double the maximum volume of electricity generated to qualify as a micro-producer, in order to encourage more people to go down this route.

- Friday, March 24

Coalition-to-be will have to address healthcare funding challenge.

- Monday, March 27

April 10 is the date aimed for, for the signing of the new Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition pact, although nothing is set in stone yet, MP Mart Võrklaev (Reform) says, adding the XV Riigikogu may convene "within the next couple of weeks."

- Tuesday, March 28

Eesti 200 on tycoon's contribution: We do not accept illicit donations

- Wednesday, March 29

Reform chief whip: Main election issue was security not marriage equality

- Thursday, March 30

Ratas confirms Center submitting him as deputy Riigikogu speaker candidate

Coalition talks: Reform's 'tax hump' abolition may take time to materialize

- Friday, March 31

EKRE will not further contest March 5 Riigikogu election result

- Saturday, April 1

Opposition parties still lack consensus on Riigikogu vice-chair candidate

- Monday, April 3

Akkermann: New government to review Eesti Energia's ownership expectations

Parties looking to sign new coalition agreement by next Monday

- Tuesday, April 4

From districts to voting age – major elections changes in the pipeline

Sides to the coalition admit fiscal constraints

- Wednesday, April 5

Kristina Kallas: No tax can be hiked until spending in check

- Thursday, April 6

Kristina Kallas: We need a moratorium on state spending

Negotiators hope to unveil ministers and coalition agreement on Saturday

Gallery: Outgoing Reform-SDE-Isamaa government holds final sitting

President: Kallas, Akkermann Eesti Energia board criticism 'unseemly'

- Friday, April 7

Akkermann: Alcohol excise duty hike probable

SDE leader: Coalition agreement ready, includes tax changes

- Saturday, April 8

The coalition deal is finally unveiled on this day, ending a month of talks almost to the day. Highlights of the agreement include hikes to income tax and VAT, a completely new vehicle tax from 2024, hiving off parts of state-owned energy company Eesti Energia, and pledges to render family benefits more universal and cost-efficient. Reform gets its wish of an income tax-free threshold rise to €700 per month, while income tax exemptions for children and housing loan interest payments are set to be abolished.

The proposed ministerial lineup is also revealed, with six ministers (plus the prime minister) returning from the preceding administration, and four taking up their first ever ministerial portfolios.

While this coalition, and also the proposed new Riigikogu speaker (Eesti 200 leader Lauri Hussar), will need voting on at the Riigikogu, this is set to take place in the week starting April 10 - the day the XV Riigikogu takes office - and since the coalition has 60 seats at the 101-seat chamber, seems a shoo-in.

Beyond that, formalities such as the exit of the outgoing coalition, the presentation of the new ministers to the head of state, and the new government taking its oath of office in front of the president, will need to be carried out before the coalition is a fact.

This is therefore as good a time as any to conclude the above piece.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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