Estonia election analysis: Why the liberals won, the far-right lost, and other key takeaways

Estonia election analysis: Why the liberals won, the far-right lost, and other key takeaways

The votes are all tallied, the winners declared, and the dust is settling on Estonia's first election since the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine is over.

The makeup of the next parliament - Riigikogu - looks familiar but also different: at the previous election in 2019 there were five parties represented, but now six parties have made it over the 5% threshold and returned MPs.

Now talks begin to form the next government and here's where PM Kaja Kallas is hoping history doesn't repeat itself: in 2019 her Reform Party won the most seats in parliament but she was outflanked by right-wing parties who went on to form a coalition of their own.

So what did we learn from the campaign and the elections? Here are our key takeaways:

1. Strong new mandate for Kaja Kallas and her Reform Party

Incumbent Prime Minister Kaja Kallas had a strong night, with her centre-right Reform Party picking up three new seats, while opponents further right in the political spectrum suffered losses. Estonia's public broadcaster ERR called it a "landslide" win as Reform extended its lead over the far-right EKRE party to 15 seats.

The win, Kallas said, "also shows that Estonians overwhelmingly value liberal values, security founded on EU and NATO, and firm support to Ukraine."

The new liberal bloc which has now emerged in Estonian politics could in theory mean that Reform would only need the support of one other party to form a majority government, but Kaja Kallas talked on the campaign trail about the need for building sustainable and solid alliances with other parties, so she's likely to look at two other parties with similar values to form her coalition: Estonia200 and the Social Democrats.

2. Big breakthrough for Estonia200 party

At the last general election in 2019, the Estonia200 party fell just short of the 5% threshold to return MPs to parliament. At the regional elections they sharpened their message, targeted seats in urban areas in particular where they felt their strengths and core support lay, and now translated this into national success with 14 seats in the Riigikogu -- and a likely spot in government.

So why has this liberal, centre-right party resonated now with voters? Party co-founder Kristina Kallas (no relation to Kaja Kallas) tells Euronews that her party succeeded by appealing to people across the political spectrum.

"At this election, people were looking for the option of a new, liberal force," says Kallas.

"In Tartu, where I campaigned, it's not just young liberal progressive voters worried about populism, it was also quite elderly people who might not be value-liberal as we understand it, but populism was also something they didn't want," she explains.

"Estonia200 brought more liberal voters out to vote, and to vote for a new party," says Kallas.

Sergei Grits/AP
Electoral commission staff count ballot papers after voting closed at a polling station in Tallinn, Estonia, Sunday, March 5, 2023 - Sergei Grits/AP

3. Parties on the right took a fall in support

"This year it seems to be more important who doesn't get the votes, than who does," one Estonian voter told Euronews on election day, and that feeling seems to have prevailed with a liberal, values-based centre-right bloc emerging strongly, while parties with more traditional views (Centre Party and Isamaa) or more polarising policies (EKRE) took a hit.

"Reform Party and EKRE presented themselves as the main opponents in the election, calling for supporters of other parties to vote for them to make sure that the other one does not stand a chance to become a prime minister's party," explains Merili Arjakas, a research fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn.

"While EKRE's nominal loss of two seats is not major, they had expected to take over the Centre Party's position of being a strong second party with give-or-take of 25 seats. This did not happen," she tells Euronews.

Additionally, having the Social Democrats and Estonia200 fare better than in recent opinion polls also added salt to the right wing's wounds.

"This is why there is a widespread perception that the nationalist right lost the election," says Arjakas.

The Centre Party's vote share was down more than 36,000 votes from the last election, likely lost due to a number of factors including a popular figure who was expelled from the party last year who ran as an independent; but the security situation, the war in Ukraine, a feeling of neglect or alienation among Russian-speaking voters who traditionally vote for the Centre Party, and generally lower level of political engagement.

Pavel Golovkin/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
KRE), the candidate for Prime Minister Martin Helme casts his ballot at a polling station during a parliamentary elections in Tallinn, Estonia, Sunday, March 5, 2023. - Pavel Golovkin/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

4. Internet voting is more popular, and trusted, than ever

For the first time in an Estonian election cycle, more than 50% of people cast their ballots on the internet. That's only possible because of the wide range of services that are available to Estonians online, the investment in system security that authorities have invested in, and the high level of trust the public has in the integrity of internet voting.

The fly in the ointment the after the votes were counted is that far-right party EKRE now reportedly wants to challenge those electronic ballots in court.

Kristi Raik, Deputy Director of the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn, calls that a "Trumpist" move.

"EKRE is bringing into question the reliability of the voting procedure and wants to contest the e-vote in court. This is a dangerous game of undermining people’s trust in institutions," says Raik.

"The real reason being that EKRE gets relatively few e-votes."

Sergei Grits/AP
Activists speak with people near a campaign tent adorned with posters depicting candidates' portraits during parliamentary elections in Tallinn, Estonia, Sunday, March 5, 2023 - Sergei Grits/AP

5. What happened to Russian-speaking voter turnout?

Estonia's Russian-speaking voters have found themselves a bit politically adrift in the last year or so. Although they have traditionally sided with the Centre Party, they felt let down when it comes to continuing Russian-language education in parallel with the Estonian-language education system.

EKRE had tried to woo them, and use the arrival of Ukrainian refugees as a wedge issue: but EKRE had also been very vocal about calling for the removal of Soviet-era monuments which could in turn alienate some Russian-speaking voters.

"Looking at the districts, the turnout was remarkably lower than national average in Ida-Virumaa county and a bit lower in Tallinna Kesklinna, Lasnamäe and Pirita districts, where many Russian speakers in the country live," explains ICDS's Merili Arjakas.

While the methodology for calculating turnout has changed slightly in this year's elections, turnout in those Russian-speaking districts has always been lower than average.