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
|Reform Party (RP)
|Center Party (CP)
|Social Democratic Party (SD)
|Pro Patria-Res Publica Union (PP-RP)
|Free Party (FP)
|Estonian National Conservative People’s Party (NCPP)
|Other, not passing 5% electoral threshold
|Seats in the Riigikogu
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
||RP + SD + PP-RP
||RP + CP
||CP + PP-RP + FP + NCPP
||CP + SD + PP-RP
||RP + SD + FP
||RP + SD + NCPP
||RP + PP-RP + FP
||RP + PP-RP + NCPP
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.