Estonia: Dreamland for Liberals

Paul Hudson via flickr || CC

Estonia has stood up to its reputation of the liberal Musterland in the region. The opposition center-right Reform Party secured a convincing victory over the currently governing center-left Center Party.

Not even a few hours before the announcement of the results no one would have dared to guess who of these two traditional political rivals would win the power race. The opposition Reform Party and the ruling Center Party both were polling neck to neck with the  former slightly lagging behind in the latest polls. At the end of the day, the Reform Party led by Kaja Kallas beat the Prime Minister Jüri Ratas’ Center Party with the final outcome of 28.8% to 23.1% of the vote.

Several conclusions suggesting the future development in the country as well as the current mood among the public can be drawn from the general elections’ results. So what does the election outcome actually mean for the Baltic liberals?

Liberales Musterland

Juri Ratas has been heading a coalition of his Center Party, the Social Democrats and the conservative Fatherland, since November 2016, when the previous, centre-right, government collapsed after internal disputes and a lost confidence vote.

During its time in the power, the Center Party, whose backers include ethnic Russians (who make up 25% of the population in this former Soviet republic)  implemented several leftist policies, which did not meet with very much support from the broad public. Prime Minister Ratas was seeking to make the Estonian tax system more progressive. As a result, the three main topics of the 2019 general election were (according to the polls): taxes, costs of living, and the question of conservative vs. liberal values.

A traditional advocate for liberal economic policies, the Reform Party, sensing the opportunity, swiftly adapted its political program to the public demand, offering business-friendly reforms and a flat tax, which was for a long time the hallmark of the country’s economy. And judging upon the general election results, the political instinct of the party’s leadership turned out to be a very proper one.

The people of the small Baltic country remain to be liberals with all of their heart and soul.

One bitter victory has, however, cast a shadow over the true liberal dreamland. The nationalist populistic EKRE party came in third in the parliamentary election with 17.8% of votes. This means their public support has more than doubled since the last election in 2015, when they received 8.1%.

Looking at the map of the support by electoral districts, the nationalists were the strongest in the regions the furthest away from the capital. This confirms a general European trend: no matter how big the countryor how well the economy is performing, the regional disparities may be found everywhere.  

Lady Prime Minister

Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas is very likely to become the first prime minister in the history of Estonia. However, a lawyer by education and a former MEP will have to wait some time before she can attempt to “govern the country more intelligently”, as she once said.

In the next few days, President Kersti Kaljulaid will nominate a candidate for the prime minister, who will then start the talks to form a coalition. And the negotiations might not be easy.

Both of the ALDE member parties have ruled out the possibility of forming a government with the EKRE, which leaves Kallas a very limited maneuvering space. She can either create an unstable alliance of 56 MPs in the 101-seats parliament with two small parties, or attempt to build a grand coalition with the Centrists (which has not happened since 2003).

Technology Rules

It would not be E-stonia if the country would not brag about its technological advancements over the rest of the European tech oafs. Being the first country in the world to use online balloting for a national election in 2005, the e-voting become massively popular among Estonians.

The number of people who chose to cast their votes comfortably through an internet-connected device is increasing every year. This year, 26% of all votes came through a dedicated government website, which makes it a new world record.

Political candidates are also trained to secure their home web pages from the attacks of hackers. The Estonian authorities are also very closely monitoring the spread of disinformation and hostile propaganda among voters, ready to step in and clarify the situation with the employment of crisis communication strategies at any point.

The Estonian electoral committee has so far reported no attempts from Russia or elsewhere to interfere with the election, either through hacking, fake news or disinformation.

Adela Kleckova
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom