With the ski doping scandal which dominated the news from Wednesday afternoon, there is a danger of forgetting that Sunday is general election day in Estonia.
Polls open at 09.00 EET on Sunday in just over 450 polling stations up and down the country, where voters pick their candidate of choice from lists run by all the major parties in each of Estonia's 12 electoral districts, with smaller parties running part-lists, and some independent candidates running too.
The maximum total number of candidates a party can run, and thus the number that nearly all parties run, is 125.
In fact, advance voting from Thursday 21 February to Wednesday 27 February saw a turnout of nearly 40% of the electorate, with nearly 350,000 votes cast, the bulk of them electronically.
Previous voter turnout percentages at Estonian elections have been in the sixties; the advance voting figure was up on the 33% at the last general elections in 2015, and e-voting had grown since the 2017 local elections.
Mandates (ie. Riigikogu seats) are distributed amongst the candidates using a modified version of the d'Hondt system of proportional representation, which spreads excess votes for popular candidates, once they have passed the threshold 3,000 votes (which naturally should be easier in more populous districts like Harjumaa). Votes left over after that has taken place are distributed in two further phases, called district mandates and compensation mandates. See here for more info on how the electoral system in Estonia works.
Parties as a whole have to get 5% of votes in a district to get any seat there, so big question marks have been raised about those parties which have been hovering around the 5% mark in pre-election support surveys (the accuracy of which can be questioned in some cases).
Runners and riders
The parties running in all districts, all with full lists (except for Richness of Life) are:
Centre – the highest amount of support, according to most recent surveys, at a little under 30%. Centre has done a lot to clean up its image in recent years and a victory would be a resounding vote of confidence in current prime minister, Jüri Ratas. The party is somewhat fragmented, however, and its leadership still has a long way to go in asserting itself over municipalities where it predominates, and which still seem to act as a law unto themselves at times. Naturally, party support in the municipalities is likely to translate into national support, for the most part, though not entirely - many of those who vote at a local level are less inclined, or in the case of the ''stateless persons'', are not able, to vote, and we're talking predominantly Centre voters here. Have the education and economic affairs ministries, amongst others.
Reform – often appear to see themselves as the natural party of government, having been out of office for a couple of years, after a decade and a half in power. Media darlings up to a point, and largely run counter to the Roger Stone adage that ''politics is show-business for ugly people'', outstripping Centre might prove a bridge too far, though it only lags fractionally behind in most surveys. No ministries at present, since Reform is in opposition.
Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) – at one point looking like the kingmakers of the next coalition, it may well be that one or both of the aforementioned parties do a deal which keeps EKRE out. Nevertheless, EKRE's support has indeed grown, and it is are snapping at the heels of the big two, being in the late teens of support by most recent surveys.
UK daily the Financial Times has been predicting significant wins for EKRE, though it may be that support figures flatter them somewhat. The far-right tag is not anything like as much of a kiss of death in Estonia as it can be in other countries; the traditional torchlight parades on independence day are highly orchestrated, from the outside looking in, and largely faceless, though popular singer Tõnis Mägi did perform for the party faithful this year. Probably only SDE, from the major parties would refuse to enter coalition with EKRE.
Social Democratic Party (SDE) – one of two junior coalition parties in the past administration, SDE has struggled a bit to compete in its election campaigning visibility, helped somewhat by Indrek Tarand's antics on Toompea in November. Key ministries currently held are foreign (Sven Mikser), culture (Indrek Saar) and health (Riina Sikkut). Supposedly, SDE have a 'ceiling' beyond which support cannot rise; the party will surely pick up some seats, and its support base is likely to be more loyal than that of some of its rivals. No doubt seen by many in rival parties as one of the easier potential coalition partners to work with.
Isamaa – the rebranded former IRL has been a bit in the doldrums the past few years. Whereas 14 seats, its current total, or rather total until the Riigikogu wound down last Thursday, was seen as a bare minimum four years ago, the party would be pretty optimistic to match that this year. Justice minister Urmas Reinsalu has kept busy in recent months, including being at the forefront of the government split on the UN Global Migration Compact at the tail-end of 2018. The party has some pedigree and residual support ase, however, and the election coming just a week after independence day will probably give it a boost, as will, quite frankly, media support in much of the commercial media landscape.
Free Party – expect Sunday to be particularly unkind to the Free Party, a group which has half a dozen seats at the Riigikogu and yet was struggling to maintain the required 500 members to retain legal political party status. Two changes of leader in 2018 do not help to instill confidence, either, and the party could be dismembered by support dispersing in various directions, depending on which aspects of Free's platform attracted a voter in the first place, be it Reform-, Estonia 200 or even EKRE-wards.
Estonia 200 – one of two new kids on the block, and the coming men and women in the latter half of 2018 (essentially since the party was formed), things went awry for Estonia 200 after the turn of the year. A well-meaning, but ultimately ill-conceived, poster campaign, in January, dealt a blow which the party has never recovered from, even with a fairly impressive roster of names including former IRL minister Margus Tsahkna, and a glamour to rival Reform's. Candidate Lauri Hussar still being editor-in-chief at daily Postimees (in whose pages the Estonia 200 manifesto had earlier been reproduced) was hardly the party's finest hour in its short history, either. Hovering around the 5% mark in recent support, which means it could pick up a couple of seats. But the establishment is mean, and can jealously circle its wagons against outsiders, so Estonia 200 could just as likely come away with nothing.
Green Party – running a full list again, even with socialite Anu Saagim on the ticket, could mean there are 125 people without a seat chez Green. It isn't over till it's over of course, but green politics does not take quite the same form in Estonia as it does in many ''old'' European countries like Germany and the Netherlands. Support has also seen some pressure with the arrival of the newest party...
Richness of Life – started as a loose confederation of eco-people, academics, musicians and others in Tartu last year, the party pulled out all the stops to meet the 500-member requirement and are so running, though without a full list of 125 (they're averaging about three per district). This suggests it should be taken more seriously than it was at the beginning, but the party has a very different, decentralised and community-based approach which means major national electoral success almost goes against its raison d'être. Picketed ERR twice on the issue of non-coverage on its TV political debate broadcasts, which we were only too happy to cover.
Would be nice to see Richness pick up a seat or two; in reality we've run out of road, particularly as these elections might see greater consolidation of the existing larger parliamentary parties, at the cost of all the others.
Also-rans include the United Left Party, and various independent candidates. A group called Rahva Tahe did not in the end run any candidates, nor indeed put up any visible means of contact or other meaningful info on its website. The United People's Party (RÜE), another right-leaning party, disbanded some time during the course of 2018, presumably moribund due to the rise of EKRE.
ERR News in English is set to provide additional election coverage on the evening/night of 3 March, so check back here regularly for an up-to-date picture as results start coming in. The full results are likely to be known at the start of the working week on Monday, at the latest; the makeup of the next government will not, however, since a period of coalition talks will be held as the larger party(ies) try to bring in the support of smaller ones in order to reach the magic 51 seats, or more, necessary for a majority at the Riigikogu.
Readers with Estonian will be able to watch the events unfold in real time on ETV and ERR.
There are also European elections to follow in late May, with most of those listed above campaigning hard there too, so no rest for the wicked as they say.
As for the ski doping scandal, reaction from politicians has been conspicuous by its absence. Normally, in such cases, the prime minister, president, relevant government ministers, and possibly opposition leaders, would in turn give their take on the events, but apart from a statement by culture minister Indrek Saar (SDE) about possibly making doping a criminal offence, a brusque comment by former prime minister Andrus Ansip (who is not running in the general election), and a response from Kristina Šmigun-Vähi, running for Reform and a former star of Nordic skiing, it has been crickets.
The president is currently in Slovakia, and is set to pick up the pieces on Monday, but the rest of the cast seems to have gone to ground between now and Sunday, leaving the controversy as an in-house issue amongst the Estonian skiing and sports community, with, given the popularity of skiing in Estonia, public opinion not needing any prodding into action.
Editor: Dario Cavegn