Estonia – the EU Parliamentary Elections

Political Background

Estonia joined the EU as one of the 10 new member states in the big expansion at the beginning of 2004.

After independence from the Russian Empire in 1918, Estonia had been occupied by the Soviet Union in 1944 and became a Soviet Republic. Estonia became independent from the USSR with its collapse in 1991, and Estonia quickly orientated itself towards the West, partially out of fear of Russia, with which it still shares a border.

Estonian is one of the few official languages of the EU to not be an Indo-European language, being a Finno-Ugric language (as are Hungarian and Finnish). Since independence Estonia has tried to identify itself as a Nordic state based on this lingual, and cultural, relationship with the Finns, with Finland sitting just across the Baltic Sea.

The left is very weak in Estonia due to the legacy of communism and as such Estonia’s economy has been radically liberalised. Estonia ranks above the UK, the Netherlands and Germany on ease of doing business. Estonia has a balanced budget, almost zero public debt, and a flat-rate income tax. Estonia’s corporate tax regime means that in many cases corporation tax is zero. Due to Estonia’s advanced use of the internet for citizens, the government boasts that you can set up a business in twenty minutes in a coffee shop on your laptop.  The right-wing US think tank, the Heritage Foundation, has ranked Estonia 11th in its Index of Economic Freedom.

Due to this liberalisation Estonia has been something of an economic success story since independence. Along with Latvia and Lithuania Estonia was termed one of the Baltic Tigers after a sustained economic boom which lasted from 2000 until around 2007. In this period Estonia’s economy grew by up 10% a year. Estonia was, however, badly affected by the global economic crisis, losing 14% of its GDP in 2009 due to the fallout from a property bubble. Estonia has performed well since, however, growing by 8% in 2011 and 3% in 2012.

Estonia adopted the Euro in 2011, and is broadly speaking highly pro-European.

Estonia’s political system suffers from an allegedly cartelistic political system in which parties differ little, due to highly restrictive campaign financing laws. This acts to prevent genuinely new parties entering the system.

A source of some tension in Estonia is the ethnic Russian population. As part of the USSR there were attempts to ‘Russify’ Estonia, and when Estonia became independent many ethnic Russians ended up in Estonia. While many returned back to Russia, voluntarily, the 2011 census records the number of Russians in Estonia as 25.2% of the population, though some estimates suggest it could be even higher, and Russians are concentrated around Talinn and the North East.

Estonians are still rather nervous about Russia and Russians for fairly obvious reasons, and the Estonian nationality law has been set up to make it difficult for non-ethnic Estonians to become citizens. To become an Estonian one either needs to have a parent who is an Estonian or to prove sufficient familiarity with the Estonian language.

As such, around 30% of ethnic Russians in Estonia do not enjoy full citizenship rights.

Electoral System

As one of the smallest countries in Europe, Estonia is one of the four EU countries which elects only six MEPs to the European Parliament.

Estonia’s electoral law for European elections is in an almost constant state of flux. By my count, the European Parliament Electoral Law has been amended 21 times since its entry into force in 2002. A constant source of tension is over how much control over individual candidates the voters should have.

For this election the Estonian Parliament has introduced an open-list system, whereby voters can vote for individual candidates. Votes for candidates will be counted as votes for the party. Parties will be assigned seats broadly based on the proportion of their vote.

Estonia was the first country in the world to introduce internet voting for national elections, in 2007, as part of the country’s commitment to e-services. Around 15% of voters voted this way in the last national election, and this will probably be higher this year. The system has some interesting features. For instance, internet voting opens 10 days before the election date, but if you cast your vote for the first day of internet voting and later decide that you prefer another party or candidate you can change your vote at any point before the polls close. There is no clear evidence that internet voting has raised participation in elections. The system is also dependent upon Estonia’s biometric ID card system.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party Votes Seats
Centre Party (KESK) Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 26.1% 2
Independent – Indrek Tarand Greens/European Free Alliance 25.8% 1
Reform Party (RE) Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 15.3% 1
Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) European People’s Party 12.2% 1
Social Democratic Party (SDE) Socialists and Democrats 8.7% 1

Likely results

Polls in Estonia show the big four very close together, with all four points within seven points of one another. It is likely, given the electoral system and the small number of seats that the largest two parties will win 2 seats each and the smaller two shall win only 1 seat each. Polls seem to suggest that it is likeliest that the Centre Party and the Social Democrats will win second seats over Reform and the IRL.