Image Source: https://upnorth.eu/estonian-election-guide/
Estonia is preparing for two election campaigns in the near future. Parliamentary elections will take place on 3 March, 2019, and in May the Estonian electorate will choose its representatives for the European Parliament. The results of the parliamentary elections will undoubtedly affect the results of the vote for MEPs in May. But what are the main threats for the existing Estonian political order and can we take its survival for granted?
The parties, whose candidates will compete for 101 seats in the Riigikogu, will need to overcome the 5% barrier. In general, today there is a high degree of political pluralism in Estonia. Five or six parties, like the Estonian Reform Party or the Estonian Centre Party, mostly old residents of the political establishment, are still expected to be well represented in Parliament. But the pan-European rise of the populist far-right has also been observed in this Baltic state in the form of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE). The EKRE is ready to take the fight to the established political parties. These aren’t empty words: about one-fifth of the electorate has voiced support for the party.
The EKRE is following a trend, which is very popular on the continent today. In short, they are nationalist and Eurosceptic, like Marine Le Pen or Viktor Orban. They regard the conservative family as of paramount importance, present the fear of migration as a threat to national identity and culture, criticise liberal values, and vehemently oppose the European Union. Such views are not marginal in the country today: eurosceptic nationalists in Estonia can hope to receive approximately 20% of the vote; and this is a positive indicator for them. In 2015 they received only 8.1%. They regularly raise issues not only around migration and same-sex marriage, but also around the so-called ‘Russian menace’, accusing Russia of occupying and annexing Estonian territory. Despite this, the EKRE has shown progress in winning the votes of Russian-speaking citizens, thanks to the appeal of conservative values held by this section of the electorate. What is more, the party’s apprehension towards Russia does not necessarily constitute hate speech against ethnic Russians in Estonia.
For nationalists, loud slogans like ‘the EKRE will kick them [the refugees] out when getting into power’ and promises to restore order in the country with an iron fist have become effective means to gain publicity and popularity. Without a doubt, the EKRE’s form of nationalism has a particularly intolerant and populist twist. They gained a significant boost from opposing the formal recognition of same-sex unions in 2014 (when Estonia put this into legislation) and from the start of the migration crisis in Europe in 2015. They have been critical of the current government's decision-making, and their ‘anti-system’ language has managed to mobilise the votes not only of the nationalist-oriented electorate, but also of a part of the protest electorate.
In general, this wasn’t too difficult since conservative values were quite common in Estonian society before the emergence of the EKRE in 2012. Estonians were eager to preserve their national culture and language. Memories of Soviet Union’s policy of russification in Estonia and the presence of a large Russian-speaking minority in the country have posed challenges to Estonia since it regained independence in 1991. Today the Kremlin’s efforts to reclaim authority among the Russian speakers in the post-Soviet region have only opened up political opportunities for the EKRE as the defenders of Estonian originality.
Using its ‘anti-system’ rhetoric, the EKRE also capitalises on growing economic problems and corruption in the country. The party promises measures like a comprehensive overhaul of the judicial system (which involves a serious democratisation process, including a significant downsizing of bureaucracy). They also claim they will cover 25% of mortgages or other household expenses of young married couples per child, based on the average home loan sum. The EKRE is also offering to carry out a healthcare financing reform to do away with abnormally long queues to see doctors. Today it may seem like a lot of promises but they may convince the Estonian people to favour their own claims over the rhetoric of local and Brussels officials.
Other parties have harshly criticised far-right politicians for their words and views. The Centre Party member Raymond Kaljulaid stated that the Conservative People’s Party is ‘a xenophobic party that divides up nationalities living in Estonia by category’. However, the party’s growing popularity should prevent it from being written off, and disapproval from other parties can only reinforce their arguments.
So, if the EKRE get one-fifth of the seats in March, it would become Estonia’s third-largest party. But no party can expect to govern alone in Estonia. And we should not expect the EKRE to dictate the terms of its inclusion in a governing coalition and to put a liberal democracy under threat. Certainly, it would be difficult to patch the EKRE into a functioning coalition, but so far Estonia’s party system has been quite stable. There is a strong national consensus in Estonia on key EU, foreign, and security policies. Besides, having become part of the mainstream, the party will probably experience a fast decline to the mainstream itself. But still it will depend on the ongoing volatility of European politics.