'It's literally everywhere': Foreigners in Tartu discuss Estonian elections

The 2023 Riigikogu election campaign in Tartu.
The 2023 Riigikogu election campaign in Tartu. Source: Michael Cole

This Sunday, after six days of online and advance voting, Estonians go to the polls in the 2023 Riigikogu (parliamentary) elections. While only Estonian citizens can vote, the results will surely have an impact on everyone living in the country. On Friday, ERR News headed out to the streets of Tartu to find out what non-Estonians in the city are making of it all.

For weeks now, representatives of Estonia's political parties have been on the campaign trail in the center of Tartu. Setting out their stalls in the city's main thoroughfare, some have been giving away branded pens, candies and even jars of honey in an attempt to attract more voters, while others dole out free pancakes or packets of seeds.

Meanwhile, an ever-increasing number of vehicles with pictures of the candidates' smiling faces on the side seem to have taken up temporary residence in some of the city's most central parking spots.

Clearly, the race for the Riigikogu is on. But, with the finishing line in sight and only Estonian citizens eligible to vote, what do members of Tartu's sizable international community think about it all? On Friday, ERR News headed into the city to find out.

The 2023 Riigikogu election campaign in Tartu. Source: Michael Cole

"I know there's an election happening, but to be honest, I haven't really paid much attention to it," admits Jenny, a student from China. "As I'm not from here, I don't think it affects me that much," she tells ERR News.

She's not the only who feels that way. "Politics isn't my thing," says Sara from Nigeria, adding that she has noticed all the campaign posters going up around town in recent weeks. However, while for some Estonians, the ballot paper contains a list of household names, for those who have come to Tartu from abroad, few, if any, are familiar.

"I know there's a green party, an orange one and maybe yellow one," Sara says, "but really all I remember is the colors," she smiles.

Asked who she would vote for if she were eligible, Sara points to a nearby EKRE poster at the edge of Town Hall Square (Raekoja Plats). "Probably that one. They have the same colors as the Estonian flag. I like that."

Jenny however, is less willing to commit. "I wouldn't know who to choose because I don't know who any of them are actually," she says.

One member of Tartu's international community, who is keeping a close eye on things is Dr. Stefano Braghiroli, associate professor of European Studies at the University of Tartu's Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies.

"Yes, I am following the election," he tells ERR News. "I think the result will be tight. The Reform Party look like winning the most votes, but the big question is about who will make up the coalition. That is, how well the Reform Party or EKRE will be able to put a coalition together."

Having lived in Estonia for over a decade, Braghiroli is also well aware of the differences between election campaigns here, and those in his native Italy. "In Italy, the coalitions are generally revealed before the elections, so we know more or less what we're going to get beforehand. In Estonia, that's not necessarily the case. You might have some suspicions, but nothing is declared before," he tells ERR News.

When it comes to political campaigning, Braghiroli adds, things in Estonia are definitely much calmer than in his home country.

The 2023 Riigikogu election campaign in Tartu. Source: Michael Cole

That view is echoed by Ali, an international relations student from Pakistan. He tells ERR News that what he's seen in the streets of Tartu over the last few weeks is nothing like what he'd expect to find in the run up to an election back home.

"You know, in Pakistan, an election campaign is a bit like a festival," he explains. "It's noisy, the candidates hold huge rallies and they all have their own songs. They also go from door-to-door to talk to people and they set up their party headquarters' in big malls."

"I really should know more about the Estonian elections," he laughs, "After all, I'm studying politics at university." But, with a busy study program and work on top, Ali says he just hasn't had time to keep up to date with the ins and outs of an election he can't vote in.

While Ali has only been in Estonia since September, Stephen from the U.K. has lived in the country for 12 years and has permanent residence. That doesn't mean however, that he gets to have a say in who makes it into the Riigikogu.

The 2023 Riigikogu election campaign in Tartu. Source: Michael Cole

"I do care," Stephen says. "The problem is, that I don't know exactly what each party stands for because I'm not entitled to vote. If any party were to put dual citizenship on the table, then I'd support that," he adds.

"I'd be more interested in the elections if I could have a say but I'm fairly sure a government with EKRE in can't be a good thing for foreign nationals."

Stephen is not the only person ERR News speaks to, who is wary of EKRE's reputation. "Oh, I know a little bit about them," says Alberto, an economics student from Italy, pulling a copy of EKRE's electoral program from his jacket pocket. "They gave me this just now when I walked past their tent," he says. "They probably thought I was Estonian. The guy was talking to me in Estonian anyway."

The 2023 Riigikogu election campaign in Tartu. Source: Michael Cole

 But EKRE certainly aren't the only ones taking part in this election, who are well-known to international audiences. "I really love Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform)," says Alberto's classmate Maria, who is also from Italy.

"I recently watched the security conference in Munich and I found her intervention really inspiring. I think she knows a lot, she's really smart. She knows a lot about history and knows what she's doing," Maria explains. "And she's really able to show that."

Maria then points out another difference between election campaigns in Italy and Estonia. "(In Estonia), when I want to watch a video on YouTube, campaign ads pop up all the time. It's literally everywhere," she laughs. "There's not so much of that in Italy, it's more TV-based and there's more focus on traditional media."

"So, who would you vote for if you were Estonian?" ERR News asks. "Oh, I think I know," Alberto smiles. "And it wouldn't be these guys."


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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