Opinion: Twelve things we learned from the general election ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

After 22 January and no longer being allowed to promote themselves with outdoor ads in the run-up to the 3 March Riigikogu elections, candidates got  creative with their advertising.
After 22 January and no longer being allowed to promote themselves with outdoor ads in the run-up to the 3 March Riigikogu elections, candidates got creative with their advertising. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Sunday's election saw victory for the Reform Party, and presumed Prime-Minister-in-Waiting Kaja Kallas. The next few weeks will see coalition talks with three of the four other parties that got Riigikogu seats (Reform itself has ruled out the Conservative People's Party of Estonia, or EKRE), after which we have another election following — the European Parliament elections in late May. Here are some things the general election showed us.

1) The election went very smoothly.

Both the advance voting period (21-27 February, including all e-voting) and Election Day itself on 3 March went virtually without hitch. There were less than a dozen reports to the police about suspected infractions of electoral law, mostly concerning perceived outdoor advertising (which was forbidden from late January). Then there was the Jüri Ratas phone-calling incident — whilst he was in the middle of a televised debate the eve before the election, by members of Reform's youth wing — and a recount in one polling district in Narva, and that was about all.

Turnout was just over 63% — down a percentage point on 2015 — we had the e-vote result just half an hour after polls closed, and, even with just ten people counting votes at some polling stations, the final result was clear before midnight. Score for the Estonian electoral system.

2) The e-vote continues to grow

Close to 300,000 people, or just under 44% of the votes cast, made an e-vote this time, significantly up on the 2015 general election, when the figure stood at just under 31%, and close to 100,000 more than the 2017 municipal elections. Estonia has allowed e-voting since 2005, when just under 2% of took the option to vote online. We can expect this growth to continue in future general elections.

Concerns about security and other aspects of the e-vote seem to have abated, and parties which previously baulked at the method, including Centre and EKRE, seem to have put their concerns to one side (both parties saw an increase in their e-vote this time). However, it was Reform, which has never, ever dissed e-voting, that emerged e-vote kings, receiving 40% of online votes.

3) There wasn't really a strong polarising issue

Fears about a rightward lurch aside, there wasn't really one, single polarising issue at this election. Concerns about language in education, pension reforms, the healthcare system, taxation, and the UN Global Compact for Migration were all issues, but no single dispute stands out. Part of the problem here is that many parties don't have a very clear outline of their stance on, for instance, taxation, with statements like "tax peace" sometimes appearing in that category. On the other hand, one party with a fairly clearly set-out platform, Estonia 200, didn't get any seats.

4) EKRE gains substantial, but a little overblown

As Sean Connery says in "The Name of the Rose": "The only evidence I can see of the Devil is people's desire to see him at his work." Whilst we have to qualify that by noting EKRE nearly tripled its number of seats, and was the most popular party in two electoral districts, we need some clarity about what EKRE actually is. Leaving aside the ''devil'' tag, "Far-right" is an appropriate appellation. "Nazi" is not, however. The party lacks the explicit (or some would even say, implicit) anti-Slavic and anti-Semitic orientation of the party which came to power in Germany in late 1932, not to mention its expansionist bent. After all, how many leading women were there in the Nazi party? (they were forbidden membership of the party's executive; EKRE meanwhile has three female MPs).

With its highly choreographed torchlight parades, evocation of an Estonian idyll protected from the outside world, vague economic platform, and dislike of a German-dominated European federation (the current one, I mean), it has a lot more in common with Soviet shibboleths and symbolism. It is rather more the case that it fits the European lurch-to-the-right which seems to obsess much of Western media (and which probably feeds such movements' support, in fact).

Still, the party's high level of support amongst the North American Estonian diaspora is quite telling, though not about Estonian politics, particularly.

5) Russian voters stayed at home

Voter turnout in places where native Russian-speakers are in the majority, most notably in Narva, was well below the overall level. Some have said the lack of a polarising theme (see 3) above) is the reason. Okay, but it makes it clear that there is a lot of work still to be done in integration, without the need for an us-and-them dynamic, to be done.

The phenomenon cost Centre the election — Yana Toom has said that a campaign to boycott the elections in Ida-Viru County, where she was standing, was the reason why she polled about half as much as in the previous elections. If that's so, we're looking at an active anti-democratic strand, and not just a passive one, which is more serious of course.

Ultimately, the decision is down to Russian-speaking voters as to how they want to behave, but it would be a real tragedy if, given the chance to engage in a parliamentary democracy on a plate, they immediately toss it back in their benefactors' faces. What goes on in the Russian Federation itself overrides everything, so it won't be till there are major changes there that this finds an anaolgue in places like Ida-Viru County.

6) Elections can surprise even the experts

Three out of four ERR senior pundits and two English news editors had called it for Centre. We were all wrong on that count (I should have stuck by my earlier guns). Of course, not having exit polls, for instance, hardly helps.

Most pre-election surveys were putting the parties neck-and-neck towards the end, though some put Reform ahead. We tended to put that down to the surveying methods favouring Reform, but there was no real reason why the yellow party couldn't have done it. It was the largest party at the Riigikogu, and the manner in which it was unceremoniously dumped out of office in 2016 was very much in need of resolution, making a resounding vote for Centre never really on the cards.

7) Election campaigning remains as significant as ever

Even if a voter didn't go outside through much of winter, he or she would still have encountered plenty of election advertising towards the end — online, or on TV. How much a party had to spend on this was key, but Reform's, particularly towards the end, struck the right chord.

Centre's "A Just State for All," on the other hand was open to a degree of mockery; despite the lack of polarisation noted above, Reform was the party that was the most in-your-face, naming Centre and EKRE as rivals for whom votes were being cast while you just sat around, and evoking its 16 years in office as a provable track record. Reform has the most money to spend, too.

8) Getting celebrity candidates on board doesn't always work

Almost all the parties except the Free Party were at it. Centre got Kaido Höövelson, the former sumo champ known as "Baruto," added to its roster. He didn't win a seat. The party attracted two former Reform MPs, Imre Sooäär and Andrei Korobeinik. Neither won a seat. Even Indrek Tarand, running for the Social Democratic Party (SDE) is not guaranteed a seat. Estonia 200 was chock full of names, including former Postimees editor-in-chief Lauri Hussar, and filmmaker, artist, musician and writer Mart Sander, the Green Party ran socialite Anu Saagim, and EKRE would have run singer Siiri Sisask, but she pulled out.

In fact, only Isamaa seemed to avoid such grandstanding, which is supposed to carry a sufficient number of excess votes to distribute them to candidates lower on the list. In the case of Baruto, it actually worked the other way round — he will be sitting at the Riigikogu, but only because the mayor of Maardu, Vladimir Arhipov, is making way for him and retaining his existing post. Only Reform's Kristina Šmigun-Vähi, a former ski star, snapped up a seat in her own right from among the big names drafted into politics. Which brings us to...

9) There was a record 29 women elected to parliament; one of them will probably be prime minister

This in fact was not a great increase — in fact, there was the same number of women in the XIII Riigikogu towards the end of its existence. But it is an increase on the 24 elected in 2015 (substitutions during the last Riigkogu's term made up the gap). Some people have asked, why is this news? Well, for one thing, these women MPs cut across political divides, since all parties have women representatives now (EKRE has three, whereas it previously had none). They overwhelmingly were not "celebrity candidates" (see above). Many of them had previously sat in the Riigikogu, and so were getting a vote of confidence of sorts. Then there were newcomers too, including Annely Akkerman of Reform, as well as the three EKRE MPs noted (Helle-Moonika Helme, Kert Kingo and Merry Aart) and Ms Šmigun-Vähi for Reform. Finally, we will almost certainly have a woman prime minister for the first time ever, which together with the female president, would make it one of only two EU countries with both a woman head of state and a woman head of government.

10) Think long and hard before founding a new party

Neither of the two newly-formed parties, Estonia 200 and Richness of Life, got any seats. This was a disappointment for Estonia 200 in particular. The party had been polling in double figure percentages in support polls before Christmas, only for it all to come undone with the "Russians here/Estonians here" tram stop ad campaign in January. My guess is that the political establishment jumped on that to round on the fledgling party, making it clear they will protect themselves from interlopers at all times.

New parties split the vote of the existing ones of course, with SDE being the main losers with Estonia 200, but the net result is we ended up with a more consolidated Riigikogu at five parties, rather than six. At the same time, perhaps it was just as well — the brand new party at the last election, Free, got half a dozen seats and hung on for the whole term, but effectively ceased to exist at the end of it. If Estonia 200 regroups, it could do something in future, but it makes it clear that any amount of big names and slick marketing isn't enough for the electorate.

Estonia 200 is running in the European elections, in May.

11) We need to get away from buying the voters

Free chocolates, pens, even cans of sild with candidates' faces on them, are one thing, but Centre did implement one thing late during in its term which was a classic Centre move of the old days, namely rolling out free regional public transport. This had been in place in Tallinn, where the government is Centre-dominated, for several years.

In 2018, most of Estonia's 16 counties chose to take the sweetener offered to them by the Centre government in unveiling free transport on county bus lines. This meant that, in theory, travellers should be able to almost circumnavigate Estonia by bus, for free, which is nice, and the scheme is not likely to be removed any time soon. But it wasn't enough to get votes — indeed, save for Ida-Viru County, none of the counties which received free bus lines returned a majority of Centre MPs.

12) Certainty over uncertainty every time

This election has also shown that, despite the emergence of new parties and the willingness of voters — and sometimes candidates — to switch parties rather than being lifelong supporters, people prefer stability. Reform is, despite its internal wranglings, a party which can make the best claim here. It has a very important and influential old guard, with figures like Siim Kallas and Jürgen Ligi being central to the victory, something which Centre, getting away from its old image, and to a greater or lesser extent Isamaa and SDE cannot match. EKRE is only a few years old.

The economy has been growing in recent years, which would tend to play well into Reform's hands too, as being able to take stewardship of this and its continuation. This works the other way too — the party tends to do well when the economy is doing badly, since, again, Reform is the party which can sort things out.

Centre's calls for a just state for all didn't quite come up with the goods, compared with the ever-present promise of being able to make it in modern Estonia that is Reform's lifeblood.

The European elections are too soon and such a different beast from the Riigikogu elections for any substantive changes to creep in, but it will be interesting to see if Reform does as well a second time.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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