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.





17 thoughts on “Estonia election, 2015

  1. It seems that in recent elections in Eastern Europe, the defining ideological issue has been relations with Russia, and the balance between Russia and the US/EU. Moldova, Hungary, the Ukraine, and now Estonia have had elections that have primarily been contests between pro-Russia and anti-Russia parties.

    • Thanks Henry for your interesting question – hope that I am able to answer you, but else I would love to give it another try….

      The Russian question is not a new conflict line in Estonia, though the conflict (or probably more correctly war) in Ukraine has broad it to the fore of the political agenda. Estonia’s post-WWII experience with Russian dominated communism and the repeated examples of how the Kremlin attempts to affect domestic policy in re-independent Estonia (in particular through close connections within the Center Party, which for instance, have had a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party) makes the topic an ever present one. The Russian neo-imperialism that we see play out these days does not come as a surprise to the Estonians. In fact, Estonia – together with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – has continuously warned about Russian expansionism among its EU partners, who on their side have considered the four countries border-line paranoia (here one might well accuse the Baltic states of having done nothing themselves to get out of their energy dependency on Russia). That there is a potential for “Small Green Men” to erupt in Estonia is evident from the riots in 2007 (which erupted after the Estonian government decided to relocate a Red Army monument from the center of the city to a military cemetery), though I do not think that there is a broad based popular conflict between ethnic Estonians and ethnic Russians. The “conflict” is mainly something that has been nurtured by Russia in order to further its foreign policy objectives in the “Near Abroad.”
      It seems, however, that the countries like Hungary and the Czech Rep. might be less concerned about the “Russian threat” than the Baltic States and Poland are; at least if one looks at the stands of the leading politicians in these countries (e.g., Hungarian PM Victor Orbán and Czech President Mr. Miloš Zeman).

      Best wishes,


      • Thanks Rune, very interesting.
        One more question: I thought that the Social Democrats were relatively pro-Russia. Have they ever been of that inclination?

  2. Thank you, Rune.

    ” 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.” What do you mean by either of these epithets?

    Also, could you give us some idea of why PP-RP was dumped in favour of the Social Democrats last year?

    • Oh, and lastly, “Estonia has a tradition of majority governments” – Why do you think this is the case? Is there an investiture vote or other relevant institutional factors, or is it purely custom?

    • Thanks for your comments and questions, jdmussel! I hope that I am capable of answering them all in a satisfactory way.

      The concept of “purifier party” is especially associated with Paul Lucardie (see, e.g., Lucardie, P., 2000. Prophets, Purifiers and Prolocutors Towards a Theory on the Emergence of New Parties. Party Politics, 6(2), pp.175–185.), and refers to “new parties claimed to defend and ‘purify’ the original ideology of their reference party” (177). The concept fits rather well with the new Estonian Free Party. The Party was established in January 2014 based on the “Free Patriotic Citizen” NGO, founded within the PP-RP in August 2011. The “Free Patriotic Citizen” mainly consisted of old national-conservative “Pro Patria” members, who were unsatisfied with the populist and centrist orientation the leadership of the PP-RP had taken. The PP-RP itself was established in 2006 following a merger between the old conservative Pro Patria Union (in particular associated with former PM Mart Laar) and the new (est. Dec 2001) centrist populist Res Publica party. In latter years, the Res Publica wing of the party has been successful in sidelining the old Pro Patria wing (see, e.g., Taagepera, R., 2006. Meteoric trajectory: The Res Publica Party in Estonia. Democratization, 13(1), pp.78–94. for more on the Res Publica Party)

      The concept of “genuinely new parties” have been used by, e.g., Allan Sikk to denote parties that represent new political ideas that among its leadership does not include defecting members from other parties (See, e.g., Sikk, A., 2012. Newness as a winning formula for new political parties. Party Politics, 18(4), pp.465–486). With its radical nationalist proto-fascist orientation, the ENCP represents an ideological stand not previously seen in modern Estonian politics. True, the party builds on the organizational remnants of the defunct agrarian People’s Union, but it does neither share leadership nor political stand with this party (though former People’s Union leader and President (2001-2006), Mr. Arnold Rüütel, has been seen attending party gatherings (Mr. Rüütel which also held the position as the last Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR from 1983 to 1990 is, however, no longer active in politics, and I have a feeling that he – at age 86 – might not really understand what he has actually involved himself in)).

      There seems to be at least four reasons why the Reform Party dumped the PP-RP in favor of the Social Democrats:

      – Pro Patria-Res Publica Union (in Estonian, the party name Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit, abbreviated as IRL) fared well in the October 20, 2013 in Local elections – coming out ahead of the Reform Party – and the Reform Party probably saw a risk that this could be translated into parliamentary success. In any event, the local election results seemed (at the time) to have boosted the self-confidence of the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union
      – Personal attagony between members of the two parties. Especially former PM (2003-2005) and then Minister of Economics and Communication, Mr. Juhan Parts, seemed to have fallen out with leading Reform Party ministers.
      – SDE was eager to re-enter office after having been dumped from the government in May 2009 and was ready to sell itself cheaply
      – Possibility to follow a more expansionary fiscal policy in the run-up to the March 2015 general election. Pro Patria-Res Publica Union has been fiscal hard-lines (as has the Reform Party), and the Reform Party could use IRL as a scapegoat, blaming it (if necessary) of the hardship resulting from Estonia’s determined austerity policies during the international financial crisis.

      The answer to the question on the Estonian preference for majority government – I have to admit – remains a bit speculative. However, I see three broad reasons for this:
      – One hunch is that it might be an effect of the fact that Estonia has “positive parliamentarism,” meaning that the government has to be positively approved by a majority within the Riigikogu. In other countries we have “negative parliamentarism,” where the governemt merely have to be tolerated (not having a majority against it). Denmark have a long tradition of minority rule, with majority governments being the exception (e.g., the present government holds a mere 64 of the Folketing’s 179 seats);
      – During the first republic from 1920-1940 Estonia fell victim of the “Weimar syndrom” of a highly fragmented parliament leaving to political stalemate. This might have caused a tendency towards ensuring the highest possible level of political stability.
      – There might be more covered reasons, such as attempting to reduce political transparency. Having a majority government makes it easier to keep things behind closed doors, turning the everyday functioning of the parliament into a rubber stamp.

      • Thanks, Rune. The definition of a “purifier party” sounds like it would also apply to, say, Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party in New Zealand. UKIP in the UK and possibly the Tea Party in the US might also qualify.

  3. Thanks Henry and Tom. I have tried to answer both your questions below:

    @ Henry. The Social Democrats is definitely to be found among what has often been referred as the “white parties.” Like the Reform Party, the Pro Patria and the two new comers, the Social Democrats regard Estonian sovereignty as paramount and Russia as the biggest threat to this sovereignty. It is also, like the majority of Estonian parties, a strong supporter of Estonia’s membership of NATO and EU, being clearly oriented towards the West and the Nordic Countries. Politically, the Estonian Social Democrats are not to be equated with the Social Democratic parties found in the neighboring Scandinavian countries. It is more of a moderate social-liberal party (in the European sense) attracting support from the younger and well-educated part of the population. It would also be incorrect to say that the Social Democrats have a “Russian bias,” even though they might be somewhat better at attracting ethnical Russian votes than for instance the PP-RP, which (at least the Pro Patria wing of the party) have a more vocal Estonian-patriotic/national conservative leaning. The Center Party, which is strongly supported by ethnic Russians, has become a “pariah party” in Estonian politics not so much because of it voter profile, but because of its close relations to Kremlin (Putin’s United Russia party) and Russian business (e.g. Jakunin, director of Russian Railways), which is letting many ethnical Estonians to regard it as a potential “Trojan horse” which Putin can use to exert influence over Estonian domestic politics. The Social Democrats have no such contacts. The Social Democrats and the Reform Party seems to be the most obvious alternatives for ethnical Russians not favoring the Center Party. The only ethnical Russian minister in the present Reform Party-Social Democratic government is Minister of Education and Science, Mr. Jevgeni Ossinovski (28) (son of one of the richest persons in Estonia, oil transit businessman Mr. Oleg Ossinovski). He seems to be well-liked among many ethnical Estonians, but also proved capable of attracting votes from the Center Party in the ethnic Russian city of Narva (Estonia’s 3rd largest city situated at the north eastern border with Russia) in the 2013 local elections.

    @ Tom. The “purifier party” concept does not relate to any particular ideologies as such. A “purifier party” might want to purify any kind of ideology, which its “reference party” has been sliding away from. In the case of the parties you mention, I think we are dealing with a new family of parties, which might well be classified under the “populist” heading: They are all highly critical to the corruptive character of the political establishment which have become detached from the people. Rather than being within the business of purifying (reverting to/or filling in an ideological position left by an existing party) these parties seems to reflect a new conflict line between the people/the ordinary man and the elite, and might in this way fit into the classical cleavage model suggested by Lipset & Rokkan (1967). The Estonian Free Party came about as a reaction to the PP-RP party’s move away from the old national-conservative stand of the old Pro Patria Union (mainly associated with former PM Mart Laar). If you want to know more about new parties in Estonia, I would like to refer you to works by Allan Sikk, Senior Lecturer of Baltic Politics at University College, London (

    • Hi Henry! I have actually written a piece on the Estonian Green Party together with Allan Sikk. If you are interested, the reference is Sikk, A. & Andersen, R.H., 2009. Without a Tinge of Red: The Fall and Rise of Estonian Greens. Journal of Baltic Studies, 40(3), pp.349–373. We try to profile the party, both it history and its policy and voter profile. As with most new parties in Estonia it basically promised to deliver the same policy as the incumbent parties, but to do it in a “pure hands” way. When elected, however, they generally lived a rather anonymous life and was finally experiencing significant internal splits, with Marek Strandberg trying to coup the leadership. Despite its short parliamentarian life, I think the Estonian Green Party is an interesting case, as it distinct itself from what we normally associate with green policy. It was not a left-wing anti-materialist party. Rather, it had a focus on technological fixes and linked the environmental questions to national independence.


  4. What was the reason Estonia used the STV electoral system for it’s first free and fair election and then abandon it for the current electoral system?

    • I am pretty sure Rein Taagepera, both a prominent Estonian exile leader during the Soviet occupation and a prominent electoral-systems scholar, had something to do with the adoption of STV in 1990, when the country held its competitive (but, I think, non-party) election while still under Soviet rule.

      When the country regained its independence in 1991 and called a constituent assembly, the leadership neglected to call upon Taagepera for advice, probably because they knew they would not like what he would suggest. I was there as a “foreign expert” to the assembly in October, 1991, but they did not ask me about electoral systems. That choice had been made.

      • That trip to the Estonian assembly in 1991 was amazing. I was teamed up with Guy Carcassonne, a prominent French legal scholar who also served in the cabinet of Michel Rocard. I did not realize he had died in 2013.

        I do not recall names of other advisors who were present at the time, but there was a prominent German just as well, and various from other countries. I think I was the only advisor from across the Atlantic, and of course, it was Rein Taagepera who made it possible.

        I have been back to Estonia once since then, in 2010. Tallinn had changed, but it is still very beautiful.

  5. This is a very interesting country that tells a nice story of party system consolidation. As a matter of fact, Estonia is the party system showing the fastest stabilization process of the entire post-communist bloc (Slovenia being closer). Currently, Estonia is the most stable party system in the region.
    I measure stability as a function of electoral volatility. Figures below are the Pedersen Index of electoral volatility (vote) scores for Estonia. The first party elections in the country were in 1992, so scores of volatility come since its second round of elections, in 1995.

    1995 ~ 44.35
    1999 ~ 34.55
    2003 ~ 30.05
    2007 ~ 18.4
    2011 ~ 12.9
    2015 ~ 17.5
    Source: own calculation

    In mature democracies, electoral volatility usually ranges between 3.5 (USA) and around 18 (France) on historic average. Up until 2003, when the anti-party Res Public emerged as winner, the Estonian party system was not really different from the other party systems in Central and Eastern Europe. Scores above 30 were the rule then. But since the government has been led by the Reform Party (Andrus Ansip becoming Prime Minister in 1995), a new stage of stability arrived. Indeed, since 2007 the volatility scores have remained under 20, in line with some many democracies of Western Europe in the last decade.
    It seems that the Estonian political system hangs around two opposites: Reform Party and Centre Party. Until 2014, both shared strong leaderships: Ansip in RP, and Edgar Savisaar in CP. Likewise, they have also differences in terms of ethnic divides, market orientation, and the role of European Union, among others.
    But for the matter of the stability of the party system, somehow these magnetic poles have prevented more forces from shaking up the competition arena. The other two biggest parties, Social Democratic Party and Pro Patria Res Publica Union, have remained strong enough to be attractive coalition partners.
    The entering of two new political parties into the political scene does not seem to be an issue of concern. As Rune has pointed out, the Free Party is a splinter group from PP-RP, so there is common ground to grow from. The Estonian National Conservative Party will hardly have any impact—having gained 7 seats, it’s not much they can do.
    Indeed, if we look at the Effective Number of Parties (votes) there are only 5.1, in line with the average since 2003.

    1992 ~ 8.84
    1995 ~ 5.93
    1999 ~ 6.87
    2003 ~ 5.42
    2007 ~ 5.02
    2011 ~ 4.78
    2015 ~ 5.14
    Source: 1992-2011, Michael Gallagher

    It all indicates that the last election in Estonia was one of the continuity of the process of party system consolidation. The four biggest parties remain the same (especially if the splinter FP is added to the PP-RP). The newcomers (including FP) did not turn the political scene upside down, as Res Publica did in 2003–and as many other parties are doing elsewhere in Eastern and Western Europe. And, more importantly, any resulting coalition of RP with any two of Social Democrats, PP-RP and FP represents more stability.

  6. Last week, Reform, Pro Patria-Res Publica Union and the Social Democrats signed a coalition agreement, forming a majority government.

  7. I wonder if it will take at least this long for the UK to form a government after it’s election in May. What is the average time for a parliamentary democracy having a multi party system to form a government?

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