Estonian political parties and policies overview: Part 2 ({{commentsTotal}})

The leaders of the two biggest parties, Kaja Kallas of Reform and current Prime Minister Jüri Ratas of Centre.
The leaders of the two biggest parties, Kaja Kallas of Reform and current Prime Minister Jüri Ratas of Centre. Source: ERR

With the Estonian general election taking place on 3 March 2019, parties are already in the advanced stages of gearing up for polling day. Official manifestos are crystallising, prime candidates nationwide have been announced by most of the major parties, and outdoor and other advertising is starting to pop up.

In part one we gave an intro to the electoral system here and some of the idiosyncracies of the workings of that system.

Please note between the last installment and the present, a governmental split arose on the issue of the UN Global Migrant Compact which is still not resolved.

We insist that the part one overiew was done from a 'western' perspective, but a much more accurate appellation, as already noted in part one, would be an 'anglophone' one. Those from most European countries, north, south, east and west, both within the EU and without it, will find quite a lot more in common with the Estonian system, as you would expect. On the other hand readers from South Africa, New Zealand, the US, the UK, Ireland, India, Australia, Jamaica, Gibraltar and so on and so forth who have not spent a lot of time in Europe may find some aspects new or unclear, so we recommend you get up to speed on the first part of this piece.

Naturally we hope there is something of interest to all, however; we left off with the three coalition government parties, so let's pick up in the logical place with the opposition, before turning to some core electoral battlegrounds and policy areas.

Fiscal policy reform – the clue's in the name with the Reform Party

The party of the beautiful people, no less, the go aheads who did so well in the 2000s, and the largest party by numbers of seats as well as opinion polls support, it is fittingly the richest one too, so far as we know.

Its marketing and election campaigning stands out from the pack, with good reason: It expects to spend around €2 million in the run up to March 2019, more than Centre and the SDE combined. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the latter want to cap election spending at €1 million.

Reform as noted favours doing away with the social tax altogether (it says) on the grounds that the increased personal income would provide an economic boon. It also favours a move towards private sector pensions, without somehow removing the second pillar, and other classically free market sacred cows.

Whilst the Reform-Centre interface might be the key area in terms of bums on seats at the Riigikogu and in office, the Reform-SDE nexus is more important for the future development of the state along these lines. The Reform leader Kaja Kallas, though prone to vague moments, is the other smart, highly capable party leader.

Keeping the home fires burning – EKRE

Take the clutter of Centre, the commitment to worldview of SDE and the idiosyncratic approach to policies of Pro Patria, then multiply them by each other several times and you're left with the Conservative People's Party of Estonia, EKRE.

EKRE very much squares with the far-right movement supposedly engulfing Europe of late, and is sometimes derided as neo-nazi, with torchlight processions and all. In fact if people insist on drawing a parallel from 80 plus years ago, it is closer to the Vaps movement of the First Republic, which whilst off-putting to most anglophones,* was not a nazi organisation, rejecting racial ideology for one thing.

EKRE is also the only major avowedly 'eurosceptic' party, and tends to spot corruption in a lot of places including the online voting system which it thinks is open to abuse. It also favours judicial reform and making the judiciary more independent, a common criticism of the current system where the legal ombudsman and the Chancellor of Justice office are one and the same.

On fiscal policy it is all at sea, though, wanting to borrow money to boost the economy, and it is opaque about some of its own finances.

Electoral reform – the Free Party's last great hope, and a word on membership levels

The Free Party, seemingly on a life support machine with barely the 500 members required for legal status as a political party (but with half a dozen seats), wants to lower the election threshold to 3% (from the current 5%), meaning only 3% of votes polled in one of the 12 electoral districts would be required to be in the running for parliamentary seats. Oddly enough it came up with this policy recently.

At press time Free was also sticking its neck out with a call for bringing income tax down to 12% (the lowest flat tax rate so far in an independent Estonia has been 20%).

It can't compete with the big boys for personalities, especially since Artur Talvik left.

Membership it has to be said is not a failsafe yardstick for measuring the health of any of the parties. Some parties will be much more proactive in auditing member lists, actively attracting new members, or conversely being pickier in letting in oly some. After all what is better, a large list of members who do nothing or a small cadre of active, knowledgeable party-ites? A quick look at party finances also reveals broad differences in the collection of membership dues, as well as debts and donors.

Moreover, not only do voters obviously not need to be party members, but the reverse is also true - Indrek Tarand is running for SDE without joining the party, and Imre Sooäär and Anton Korobeinik have done the same with Centre, to give three prominent recent examples.

For the record, Reform is largest in membership numbers (close to 15,000), with Centre in second place on a little over 12,000. EKRE and Pro Patria are both in the 8,000s, SDE a bit short of 6,000, the Greens around 1,000 and as stated, Free about 500-600. The two newest parties on the scene, the Biodiversity Party and Estonia 200, have very recently met the 500 members criterion and registered officially for business.

Party membership is no secret; the commerical register in Estonia carries the info.

Citizenship – Estonia 200 and Centre party, slight return

The as yet-untested Estonia 200 goes against the grain of the majority of parties in accepting 'dual citizenship', something of a volte face from prominent member Margus Tsahkna who toed the official party line in being opposed, when at Pro Patria (then known as IRL).

Centre takes a stance on citizenship too, though since this tends to be directed mainly at removing the 'stateless person' phenomenon by granting Estonian citizenship to all, this is more a 'single citizenship' question.

Certainly the problem needs resolving sooner or later. Some of the half Estonian-half [insert any foreign country you like here] kids currently at school will find themselves in leadership positions in due course, and current Estonian law contradicts itself. It is unconstitutional to strip someone of their Estonian citizenship yet under the Citizenship Act 1995 a person cannot 'hold' the citizenship of another country once they hit 18. In reality plenty of people have two passports.

Estonia 200 also wants to make the presidency single-term only, lasting seven years.

The Environment

Heavy industry is a Soviet thing, thankyou very much, and its natural corollary, environmental protest, is something people were able to engage in even during the later Soviet era. Opposition to phosphorus strip mining in the late 80s is something of an antecedent to today's calls for closing down all oil shale activity and, more practically, the actual defeat by Centre of a proposed pulp mill.

To that end, the Greens always seem a bit superfluous to requirements here; now there are even two eco-parties with Artur Talvik's new Biodiversity Party. Most probably, in-house squabbling will ruin any small spark of electability in each case.

The country's one major natural resource, its forests, can however provide political capital and has a place in the national psyche that anglophones could not begin to grasp. EKRE makes cutting out mismanagement of the state forest sector (RMK) and restricting private ownership to Estonians-only, central policy issues.

The never-ending Rail Baltic saga is another example where environmental protests in Estonia tend not to follow left-right faultlines.

Other policy points from a 'western' perspective

Membership of both the EU and NATO is taken as a given here. As noted EKRE are the only party to make noises about the first of these, but it also wants more autonomy in defence, seeing NATO troops stationed in Estonia as a temporary phenomenon from which it can learn. Since the UK has has US armed forces on its soil continuously since World War Two, it would be interesting to see how Estonia could have any leeway Estonia here, though the NATO forces are token so anything is possible.

The UN is the other supra-national body which attracts not only EKRE's ire, but even questions from opposition members like Marko Mihkelson (Reform), at the time of writing trying to assert the Riigikogu's rights versus that of the executive at the Stenbock house, whilst the President is trying to do the same from her side, on the issue of the UN's Global Migration Compact.

Immigration, whilst divisive two or three years ago, is more under 'control' due to a variety of initiatives in balancing the cline of attracting skilled labour, without making things too easy for immigrants.

Law and order and crime isn't much of a hot potato compared with, say, its status in UK politics. Prisons are modern, and though sentences are usually pretty light, conviction rates are close on 100%. Outbreaks of disorder tend to get dealt with on a piecemeal basis; witness the recent youth bullying in a central Tallinn park, which got put to bed quickly. This approach is common in many areas of Estonian life.

Different sides of the same coin

Some policies can be a question of glass half full versus half empty. Take the tax threshold, for instance. Reform wants this set at €500; SDE would increase it to €540 per month which makes them seem more generous, but here's the rub – that would be the same figure as its minimum wage level, thus giving a socially democratic twist to a typically laissez-faire signature policy.

SDE does something similar with the largely unpopular alcohol excise duty; this is as much unpopular due to other parties like Reform saying it is unpopular, and some of that rubbing off on the general populace, as it is actually unpopular, if that makes any sense. At the same time, SDE again performs a sleight of hand here by stating that the price difference between alcohol in Estonia and Latvia – easy to compare when you have towns actually straddling the border (ie Valga/Valka) – is due to differing business models and practices, and not excise duty. Doubtless there are different business models and the Latvians are indeed cashing in on the excise duties phenomenon; but it's as difficult to tease out where culpability can be apportioned here, as in much of Estonian politics.

Russia

Which brings us to a monumentally complex question, on we don't desperately want to address and will no doubt fail to do adequately, that of Russia. A better question to pose than 'did Russia tamper with the elections' might be 'are there any areas of Estonian life which Russian doesn't interfere with, in some way, shape or form?'.

It's naturally impossible to ignore Estonia's giant neighbour to the east, but here, as in Russia itself, there are many 'Russias'. As a bare minimum there is the Russia espoused in the personhood of Vladimir Putin, no great friend of the country but probably no great enemy either. But the regime's reach is so far, so byzantine and janus-faced that we can have self-proclaimed patriotic (about Estonia) Russians living here who are middle-high ranking army officers passing on sensitive information to the Russian Federation for years. Probably Deniss Metsavas wasn't lying when he claimed his loyalties lie with Estonia, and neither are the nearly 80% of Russian-speaking respondents to a recent survey who said the same, yet in classically eastern style, things can simultaneously be and un-be.

Then there is the Russia of blessed memory, what in other places is called 'Ostalgia', ingrained too much in those who grew up reading Tolstoy and Pushkin at school under the old system. Presumably not everything about the Soviet Union was bad.

Then there's the 'Russia' of your nice neighbour, or the not so nice old woman who pushed ahead of you in the supermarket queue, or the bright young guy that works in IT at your company, or the person with a Russian name that looks Estonian...

Leon Trotsky referred to Estonia as 'the dog kennel of the counter revolution'; providing a haven for Russian dissidents, as well as Ukrainian war refugees and other ethnically and culturally acceptable immigrants is another Estonian institution. Gary Kasparov is a frequent visitor to Tallinn.

Next is the Russia of glittering wealth and black SUVs. Take a look around you if you're in Estonia. Some of that has long percolated across the border hasn't it... And the post-Dankse Bank stress disorder will take a while to heal.

Ultimately, Russia, whatever that means, doesn't need to do anything to meddle with Estonian affairs, it just needs to 'be', and you have a situation where even EKRE court the Russian vote (by pointing out to Russian Centre voters that the latter promotes the 'homosexual agenda' or by eulogizing Russian culture and civilization apropos of nothing, for instance).

Immigration

Having been quiet for a couple of years after the European migrant crisis of 2015-2016, the UN Global Compact on Migration brought not only the issue back into focus, but also showed up clear cracks in the ruling coalition, between SDE and Pro Patria in particular. The crisis as noted has not blown over as at press time, but hints at both how sensitive an issue it is and how quick parties here are to get political caplital out of it. Even the president needed to issue a statement to the effect that unity was needed in order to progress along the lines of the successfully building a state which has been ongoing for 27 years.

Minorities

Finally, a piece for a 'western' audience could hardly be submitted without mentioning party policies on LGBTQI+ rights. These are, very broadly, as follows: Reform, SDE: broadly supportive, where 'supportive' has a much lower bar than it does in western Europe or the anglosphere. Essentially these parties have one or two openly gay MPs and would in principle go for same-sex marriage, and probably gender neutral bathrooms, if we didn't already effectively have these in Estonia anyway – we sometimes have gender neutral saunas here, for one thing.

Centre are a mixed bag as stated. Pro Patria being socially conservative naturally stay away from championing the cause without engaging in much rabble-rousing , and Free, Estonia 200 and the Greens' policies on the issue are not clear, which probably means they don't have a strong view one way or the other.

Voter apathy

And that, dear westerner, is the crux of the matter. Estonians generally do not ululate their political views from the rooftops, preferring a kind of subdued pragmatism which has helped the country more than it has harmed it, so combined with the large(ish) range of parties, some questions which seem almost life-or-death in some countries are barely skirted over here.

Idiosyncracies in the complex social construction of the country mean, on the other hand, sometimes a very big deal, for instance with the Eesti Kontsert saga, is made of what to others might seem trivialities.

That said, we still remember Tony Blair doing just that with foxhunting and the vast amount of talk, column inches and money wasted on it, so who are we to act as judge or jury...

At one point it was looking like March 2019 would be a fiasco, but it will be alright on the night. The excise issue is overblown and won't cause people to go to, or stay away from, the polls; as much of a person's voting choice revolves around friends, connections, how they traditionally vote, who looks good and what are the big names that party has attracted as they are around ideals.

EKRE may well still emerge kingmakers and make up part of a coalition with either Centre or Reform, plus one other. The snake in the grass, Estonia 200, could wreak havoc with Reform, Pro Patria, Free, and to a lesser extent even SDE's numbers, just as Artur Talvik's Biodiversity Party will split the eco vote and keep the Estonian Greens out of the Riigikogu.

This, combined with the ever-present voter fatigue in Estonia (voter turnout is not especially high here, around 60% or so, a bit lower than the UK and certainly lower than the nordics or Germany, though higher than the US).

There is also an increasing chance Reform and Centre will do a deal to shut the door on EKRE (or at least having that effect), most likely with SDE in the house and Pro Patria not, but there are likely quite a few hurdles to cross between now and March and parties might end up runing out of track before then.

The May European elections will bring added jockeying for position as well, and a few more colourful characters joining party voting lists, not necessarily a good thing, will sustain interest for the next 16 weeks.

The general election takes place on 3 March 2019.

Part one is here.

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*Whose countries nonetheless produced plenty of small-ish groups even further to the right; Oswald Moseley's BUF, and the Blueshirts in the Irish Free State, spring to mind.

Editor: Dario Cavegn



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