Estonia election, 2015

Guest post by Rune Holmgaard Andersen

On March 1, Estonia held its sixth general election since regaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The turnout was 64.2%; a marginal increase from the 63.0% in the 2011 election. 19.6% of the electorate cast their vote through the internet. In addition to the four parties represented in the last Riigikogu (parliament), two new parties – the Free Party (FP) and the Estonian National Conservative People’s Party (ENCP) – entered the political scene. The FP is a ‘purifier party’ mainly consisting of conservative defectors from the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union (PP-RP), whereas the ENCP is a genuinely new far-right nationalist-populist party. While loosing three seats, the Reform Party could, for the third time in a row, declare itself winner of the election

Table 1. Vote and seat distribution

2015 2011
Votes (%) Seats Votes (%) Seats
Reform Party (RP) 27.7 30 28.6 33
Center Party (CP) 24.8 27 23.3 26
Social Democratic Party (SD) 15.2 15 17.1 19
Pro Patria-Res Publica Union (PP-RP) 13.7 14 20.5 23
Free Party (FP) 8.7 8
Estonian National Conservative People’s Party (NCPP) 8.1 7
Other, not passing 5% electoral threshold 1.8 0 10.5 0
Seats in the Riigikogu 101 101

Laakso & Taagepera Effective number of parties (seats): 4.7 (2015), 3.8 (2011)


Estonia has a tradition of majority governments, and the best prediction is that this will also be the outcome of the upcoming coalition talks. As outlined in Table 2, the seat distribution allows for eight different “minimal winning coalitions.”

Table 2: Possible minimal winning coalitions

  Coalition Seats
1 RP + SD + PP-RP 59
2 RP + CP 57
3 CP + PP-RP + FP + NCPP 56
4 CP + SD + PP-RP 56
5 RP + SD + FP 53
6 RP + SD + NCPP 52
7 RP + PP-RP + FP 52
8 RP + PP-RP + NCPP 51

The Reform Party has been at the helm of every government since 2005, and is likely to remain in power during the coming election period. The party has shown itself very flexible when choosing among possible junior partners, and political differences have seldom been allowed to block the formation of beneficial power-sharing coalitions.

The willingness to trade politics for power was most recently displayed during April 2014, when newly appointed party chairman, Mr Taavi Rõivas (35), decided to form a new coalition with the Social Democrats (SD), thereby leaving its long-term coalition partner and closest political ally, the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union, in the shadow. However, following the “Bronze Soldier” riots in Tallinn in April 2007, the Reform Party has ruled out any cooperation with the Center Party (CP), which enjoys overwhelming support among ethnic Russians, as long as long-serving party “godfather,” Mr. Edgar Savisaar, remains in control of the party. Hence, unless Center Party back-benchers rebel against Mr. Savisaar, a two-party coalition (option 2) between the Reform Party and the Centre Party seems unlikely. The same goes for the only two minimal winning coalitions not including the Reform Party (option 3 and 4). Neither the Social Democrats, the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union or the two new parties are likely to engage in any form of cooperation with Mr. Savisaar, even if they were offered a good bargain.

Ruling out coalitions with the Center Party leaves five options, which all include the Reform Party. However, option 6 and 8 are also unlikely as none of the remaining four parties will be willing to associate themselves with the Estonian National Conservative Party.

With the two “pariah parties” out of the game, only three options are left: a coalition between the Reform Party, the Social Democrats, and the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union (option 1), a coalition consisting of the Reform Party, the Social Democrats, and the Free Party (option 5), and, lastly, a coalition uniting the Reform Party, the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union and the Free Party (option 7). All three options appear politically viable which gives the Reform Party, being the pivotal player, a strong bargaining position. Given its newness – and thus somewhat questionable discipline – Mr. Rõivas might be wary of inviting the Free Party to join the government coalition. However, doing so would severely weaken the bargaining power of both the Social Democrats and the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union. Both the Social Democrats and the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union are eager to secure themselves a membership of the government, and will, with the prospect of having the Free Party in government, be willing to sell themselves cheaply. The Pro Patria-Res Publica Union holds a grudge against both the Reform Party, having been dismissed from the government back in May 2014, and against the conservative PP-RP defectors that now form the core of the Free Party. Hence, while they are both policy-connected minimal-winning coalitions, the risk that bad blood will affect the daily working of the government might make options 1 and 7 unattractive choices. While the marriage between the Reform Party and the Social Democrats has not been a happy one, they both have an interest in staying together. Option 5 – a coalition with the Social Democrats and the Free Party – offers the Reform Party a workable majority and, with a scorned but eager Pro Patria-Res Publica Union on the side-line, plenty of outside options should the Social Democrats of the Free Party fall out of line.

No matter which of the three options materialize, the political outlook for Estonian politics is likely to remain unchanged. As evident from latter years politics, the name of the Reform Party is largely a misnomer. The Reform Party will stand surely for domestic stability, but has little appetite for implementing a much needed municipal reform to solve regional economic imbalances or to take action to curb the ongoing problem of large-scale emigration. The Reform Party, the Social Democrats, the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union, and the Free Party are all pro-NATO and pro-EU, and will work towards further integration with its Western neighbors. In particular, Estonia will seek to deepen its ties with the USA in order to gain security guarantees in its relations with Russia, which is seen as an immanent threat to Estonian sovereignty. Politically, Estonia is likely to move even further towards its Nordic neighbors.


Rune Holmgaard Andersen is a PhD student at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Tartu, Estonia and assistant lecturer at the University of Roskilde, Denmark. Through more than 15 years, Rune has followed Estonian politics. He is an expert on neo-institutional economics, post-communist political and economic transition, and popular perceptions of democracy.





Israel coalition possibilities

Jeremy Saltan summarizes the key messages of an Israeli party leaders’ debate held the last week of February. He observes that much of the debate focused around the stage after the seats are allocated: the recommendation of a formateur (party leader who will attempt to assemble a coalition) and which parties a given party would, or would not, agree to sit with. Examining these public commitments can offer clues to where the cabinet formation process is headed.

Of course, politicians have incentives to appear committed to extract a better deal, so no statement of refusal to take a given partner absolutely rules out such a partnership. On the other hand, to break a commitment, a party leader is likely to demand just that–a better deal. Thus we can assume that statements of intent before an election are signals that rise farther above the noise than most: breaking them is not costless, either for the party whose leader made the statement, or for potential partners who have to give up something important to make a deal.

These statements matter, because the path to a majority coalition for the Zionist Union (Labor + HaTnua) is so narrow. Zionist Union currently looks to win around 24 seats. A majority coalition headed by Zionist Union, but not including Likud, would start with the following parties, with their likely seats indicated*: Meretz (5), Kulanu (8), Yesh Atid (12). At this point we are at 49, meaning 12 more are needed. The most likely place is the ultra-Orthdox parties, of which we have three this time, although one of them (Yachad) is polling just barely at the threshold (4 seats). The other two, Shas and UTJ are combining for 13-14 seats. Obviously, that’s good enough, we are over 61.

But wait! Yesh Atid leader, Yair Lapid, built much of his campaign in 2013 and his party’s record in government around “equalizing the burden”, meaning the reduction of draft exemptions and other policy benefits to the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox). In fact, he and Bayit Yehudi (otherwise a right-wing religious-nationalist party) vetoed the inclusion of the Haredi parties in the last government. Would he agree to serve in a cabinet with them this time to block a Likud-led government? Don’t count on it. Summarizing the statements of Lapid in the debate, Saltan concludes, “Lapid crushed Herzog’s dream of having both of them in the same coalition.” The refusals come from the other side, too, as Shas’s leader Aryeh “Deri made it clear he will sit with anyone including Eli Yishai [Shas defector now heading Yachad], but he won’t sit with Yair Lapid”.

So we are back at 49-50 seats, with either Yesh Atid or the Haredi parties out. Where are the other 12 (or 11) coming from? There is only one bloc not on the right that could have that number of seats: the Joint List, which is made up of the Arab parties (including Hadash, which has one Jewish MK). These are non-Zionist parties. Can they make a coalition with a party that brands itself as Zionist Union? Can Zionist Union bring them in? I’d say no. There could be “understandings” by which the Joint List’s parties agree to try to block a Likud-led coalition and to support a ZU-led government on specific issues, but it is almost impossible to imagine a ZU-led coalition that needs those seats for its governing and budget-making majority. But don’t listen to me, listen to the leaders. “The Joint List’s Iman Udah refused to commit to helping Herzog in Phase 2 (formateur recommendation) or 3 (coalition making)”, says Saltan. So, refusing to commit to help is not the same as won’t help, but it is not exactly a lifeline you’d want to count on. Herzog himself says he has not ruled out the Arab parties. Still, it is quite a stretch to believe he would be dependent on them. Moreover, it is entirely possible that even if Herzog and the Joint List reached agreement, he’d lose Lapid and/or Kahlon, and quite likely the Haredim.** (All this despite the fact that the Arab parties might win more seats than ever, thanks to the Joint List, and a poll showing a majority of Arab voters want the Joint List in government. The bottom line is that the Joint List was formed to cope with the threshold increase, not to be part of the government of Israel.)

Where else are the seats coming from? There isn’t a path to a ZU-led, Likud-free government. Simple as that. Unless the polls change a lot in the last two weeks, Likud will be in the government.

Note, I did not say Likud will lead the government. How about a ZU-Likud coalition. This would control around 47 seats. I see no reason why Yesh Atid and Kulanu would not clamber on board. That’s 67 seats. So it could happen. However, in the past week, “Prime Minister Netanyahu posted on his Facebook page and Twitter that he will not join a coalition with the Zionist Union”. So, it appears ruled out. On the other hand, what if he finishes second, and Herzog makes a public declaration for unity? Who knows!

It is not as if the largest party gets the first chance to attempt to form a government. Just ask Livni! She led Likud by a seat in 2009, but there was clearly a right-wing bloc with a majority and so Likud led the coalition that formed, leaving Livni’s Kadima isolated (or in sweet disconnect, as I put it at the time). That could easily happen again: Likud (23), Bayit Yehudi (12), Kulanu (8), Yisrael Beiteinu (6), Haredim (12+). Where things get interesting is if some of the above parties abstain from recommending Bibi Netanyahu to be formateur. Consider that the parties just named (minus Kulanu, which did not exist) had a majority in the outgoing Knesset; if they were all eager to govern together, they could have done so without this election. Thus there are several parties that could be open to a government not led by Likud, but it is unlikely that such a government would exclude Likud, for the reasons noted previously. Thus the most likely outcome remains a Likud-led government in which the Haredim are involved, Yesh Atid is not, and Yisrael Beiteinu is much diminished (but still pivotal). That actually would be a fairly different government from the one that formed after the 2013 election, but the man in the PM’s chair would remain the same.


* See the first link. I am using the numbers Saltan provides from the “poll of polls” for the week ending 28 February.

** Saltan again: Deri of Shas “said there is no partner for peace with the Palestinians and rejected [Joint List leader] Iman Udah’s offer to work together if Udah remains focused on the Palestinian issue.”

Marginal candidates on closed lists: Israel 2015 edition

Do party leaders use personal characteristics of candidates they recruit to their closed lists as a way to attract voters to the list? If the objective is to mobilize voters who might not otherwise have strong incentives to vote for the list, the strategy we might observe is the nomination of candidates associated with particular groups (or partnering parties) to marginal ranks–a rank at which the party is likely to be on the cusp of winning or losing. I pointed out such a strategy in the Israeli election of 2006, when Shas nominated representatives of the Ethiopian and Georgian immigrant communities to the 12th and 13th ranks. The party had won 11 seats in the 2003 election and would win 12 seats on 2006; there were indications that the party indeed received votes from the two communities.

How common are such marginal-ranks personal-vote strategies by parties? I wish I knew! I do have another data point from Israel, however: this year’s Zionist Union list.

The Zionist Union (or Zionist Camp) list was formed by the merger, for purposes of this election, of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua party. Although Labor holds a member primary, the joint-list agreement gave Livni the right to nominate candidates to various positions on the list. One of these was position #24.

On January 25, it was reported that the 24th spot would go to Yael Cohen Paran, “one of Israel’s leading environmentalists for the past two decades”. She is one of the leaders of the Green Movement party.

By nominating Cohen Paran, Livni has maintained her agreement with the Green Movement, whose leader Alon Tal was given the 13th rank on Livni’s HaTnau list for the 2013 election. The list won only six seats, so Tal was not close to winning, but Livni’s manifesto commitment to focus on the environment was upheld in various ways, most prominently by claiming the Environment Ministry for one of her MKs, Amir Peretz.

Of course, I can’t prove that Cohen Paran received this specific list rank for this campaign because of her ability to bring additional votes. It is possible, however, given the past record of Livin-Green cooperation. It is especially noteworthy that in the week immediately prior to the announcement, the Labor-HaTnua list was averaging just about 24 seats in the polls, meaning Livni controlled what could be the most marginal rank on the list. If there is a bloc of potential votes, and a candidate who might appeal to such a bloc, and the nominator was strategic… let’s just say Livni behaved exactly as a hypothesis about personal votes for marginal ranks on closed lists might predict.

Delhi assembly: Massive AAP win

This past Saturday voters in Dehli went to the polls to elect a replacement assembly for the one that was dissolved following the resignation of the 49-day minority government of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

While polls had generally foreseen a win by Kejriwal’s AAP (Common Man Party), none saw the massive win that the party obtained: 67 of the 70 seats, with the BJP (ruling party at the federal level since 2014) winning just 3. The Congress Party was shut out. The top three parties vote percentages were 54.2, 32.2, 9.7.

This is a stunning surge for the AAP. Its first-ever contest was for the Delhi election of December, 2013, in which it won 28 seats, second to the BJP’s 31 (Congress had 8). AAP formed a minority government, but then resigned when it could not get its signature anti-corruption bill through the assembly. In the federal election of May, 2014, the AAP flopped miserably, winning a third of the votes in Delhi but no seats. (It ran over 400 candidates across several sates, but managed just 4 seats, all in Punjab.) And now it has a solid majority of the vote and a near-sweep of the Delhi assembly’s seats.

As might be expected, some of the AAP’s changing fortunes comes down to the dynamics of first-past-the-post voting with multiple parties. The AAP actually won a slightly higher percentage of the vote in Delhi for the federal parliament in 2014 than it had won in the assembly election of 2013. The biggest source of new AAP votes clearly comes from the collapse of Congress from 24.6% in 2013 to less than ten percent this time. This swing is largely due to the Muslim community deserting the sinking ship that is Congress to block the Hindu-nationalist BJP. By contrast, when the BJP won a plurality of Delhi’s assembly constituencies in 2013, it did so with around a third of the vote, or roughly the same as in this latest assembly election. Evidently, it was the BJP’s sweep of Delhi’s seven federal constituencies in 2014 that was the aberration (46.4% of the vote to AAP’s 32.9 and Congress’s 15.1). The “Modi wave” did not carry over into the sub-national contest, and a third of the vote looks a whole lot worse when support for the the third party has collapsed.

Either Kejriwal is incredibly lucky, or he is the canniest politician in India, and had this all planned out from the start.

Greek ends-against-the-middle coalition

In the Greek election, Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) ended up with 149 seats, just two seats short of a majority. It quickly agreed to form a coalition with ANEL, the party known as Independent Greeks, which won 13 seats. This is a right-wing party.

A deal with the right-wing party makes an unusual alliance between parties on the opposite end of the political spectrum but brought together by a mutual hatred for the EU/IMF bailout program keeping Greece afloat.

Despite the seemingly odd combination of left and right, the prospect was foreshadowed:

A party born of Greece’s economic crisis, the nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL) helped Syriza block a presidential vote in December that brought about Sunday’s general election. Party leader Panos Kammenos, 49, has been preening himself as a potential partner for Syriza partner ever since.

Apparently To Potami (The River, a new party, with 17 seats) was interested in joining Syriza, but the latter rejected the idea of working with a more centrist party in favor of one sharing their hardline stance on the EU loan terms, even if that meant a party on the opposite side of so many other issues.

ANEL’s campaign also apparently signaled a role working with Syriza:

ANEL’s tongue-in-cheek campaign ad made plain Kammenos’ aspirations: he walks into a shop and gives a little boy named Alexis — a stand-in for fresh-faced Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras — tips on how to steer his toy train.

The possibility of Syriza-ANEL cooperation was raised back in November, and denied by a Syriza MP. That should have been our sign that it was inevitable that that would work together!

Greek election 2015 (or should that be “2015a”?)

Greece has its general election Sunday, called early under an automatic constitutional trigger provision given a deadlock over selection of the (mostly ceremonial) president.

I ask about a “2015a” because that is how sources sometimes designate an election when it is the first of two in a given year, and it would not be surprising if another election were needed soon, under another of Greece’s triggers for early elections–deadlock over forming a coalition. Will there be a “2015b” as there was a 2012b?

Is this election being held under open or closed lists? The usual form is open, but when an election is early in the “2012a, 2012b” style, the second election is under closed lists. I assume open, because it seems the provision for closed applies not to any early election, but just to one held within 18 months of the preceding one.

Polls during the current campaign have shown the Syriza (Radical Left) party with a steady and increasing lead. If that proves correct, the country’s “bonus adjusted PR” would give Syriza an automatic 50 seats out of the 300, before allocating the rest of the seats proportionally among those parties that clear the 3% national threshold. It probably needs to win around 40% to get a single-party majority–lower, if a lot of votes are wasted on sub-threshold parties. At least one of the polls has Syria at 36%, which suggests a majority of seats is not out of the question for the party.

If Syriza emerges with 120-130 seats, it may be hard for it to assemble coalition or support parties to get it over 151, in which case a second election would loom. If it is around 140+, we might see it form a minority government that the opposition would wait for the right moment to topple.

As for the presidency, the newly elected parliament can elect a president with a simple majority. The constitution prescribes that this newly elected parliament must complete this task before forming a government (see Art. 32:4), which means the parties may make trades among presidential selection, government formation, and policy priorities, if there is no party with a majority.