Viewed from abroad, the Estonian election results seem simple – a pro-Western party won and a pro-Russia party lost. The European Union and NATO can feel at ease; no major upheaval is to be expected from Estonia.
The domestic view is not as clear-cut. The winner, the Reform Party, billed itself as the antithesis of the Centre Party, even though the Centre Party was also a supporter of the resolution supporting Ukraine adopted by the Estonian Parliament. Yet emphasizing opposites worked, and maybe the pundits were right when they said the murder of Boris Nemtsov in Russia tipped the balance finally in favour of the Reform Party.
The mood regarding Europe was of course an election theme, but topics that were directly related to the European Union came up only indirectly. Chief among them was he Reform Party’s trademark, as it were, of continuing to maintain fiscal discipline.
Yet the electioneering overshadowed an important document issued last week by the European Commission: the country-specific updates that precede the country-specific recommendations to be issued in May.
In the context of the European Union, Estonia is doing well and has no problems with fiscal discipline. Still, the EC drew attention to several issues that in fact also came up in one form or another during the campaign – for example, the high tax burden on low-income earners, non-participation in the labour market, the biggest gender wage gap in the European Union and the low revenue base that cities and municipalities have to operate with. The last of these problems makes it hard for local governments to provide all public services.
Whatever shape the next coalition will take, the new Cabinet must grapple with these problems. Like it or not, election pledges are quite limited in most countries. That is because the effects of EU membership and globalization mean that politicians can’t promise a huge windfall at elections. In the EU, countries have given up some of their sovereignty, which means changes can’t be very radical. As to globalization, the close trading and financial relations prevent countries from operating in isolated fashion. The world has few countries that can promise very much at elections – and then actually keep the promises. And in some countries that are untouched by globalization, elections are not held at all.
It is, of course, essential that a coalition be formed quickly, because reforms can’t wait. A government without a mandate is not an effective one. Belgium, which was a state without a government for over 500 days, comes to mind. That situation isn’t likely in Estonia, but it wouldn’t be wise to spend too long in the deal-making stage, either.
This year, much discussion has been devoted to the nature of European values, and it has been especially prevalent since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Freedom of speech has also been cited in justification of the so-called Nazi blog entry of a member of the Estonian Conservative People’s Party, yet it should be asked whether the members of this party would also defend those who supported the deportation and Soviet occupation. European values lie precisely in condemning the crimes of both Nazism and communism. All of European integration is based on the idea that such crimes must never be allowed to happen again. Another bad thing about the blog entry by the Conservative People’s Party member is that it gives even more ammunition to the Kremlin. Then again, there’s no doubt Moscow would have found something negative to say about Estonian elections at any rate. For now the wait is on to see what happens when the new coalition takes office.
This comment first aired on Retro FM’s Europe news on 6 March 2015.