March 5, 2019

Estonian Parliamentary Election 2019: Open and Progressive Estonia Marches on

EPA/Scanpix
Leader of the Estonian Reform Party, Kaja Kallas attends a press conference in Tallinn, Estonia, 05 March 2019. The center-right Reform Party won the parliamentary election on 03 March with 29.4 percent of the vote, setting up its leader Kaja Kallas to become the country's first ever female prime minister.
Leader of the Estonian Reform Party, Kaja Kallas attends a press conference in Tallinn, Estonia, 05 March 2019. The center-right Reform Party won the parliamentary election on 03 March with 29.4 percent of the vote, setting up its leader Kaja Kallas to become the country's first ever female prime minister.

Sunday’s parliamentary election was a long-awaited event in Estonia.

The steady rise in the polls of EKRE (Conservative People’s Party of Estonia) evoked strong emotions, leaving almost no one indifferent. Like many recent political occurrences such as the election of Trump or Brexit, one was either for or against EKRE and thus in favour of either an open and progressive or a closed and nationalistic Estonia.

The open and progressive side won out. The Reform Party, led by former MEP Kaja Kallas, gained four extra mandates, giving them 34 seats in the Parliament of 101. This is surprising, since just a couple of weeks ago polls predicted victory for the governing Centre Party, headed by Prime Minister Jüri Ratas. Centre Party secured 26 mandates, losing one seat. EKRE became third with 19 seats, gaining extra 12 seats. The two junior partners in Ratas’s government, Isamaa and the Social Democrats, won 12 and ten seats respectively.

A grand coalition between Reform and Centre Party is rather unlikely, though Jüri Ratas promised to fight for a position in the government. Specifically, the Reform Party built its election platform on promising to undo Centre Party’s past three years of work—the introduction of the progressive tax system, high duties on alcohol and favouring spending over saving up financial reserves. Moreover, the Reform Party and Centre Party have somewhat conflicting views on reforming the education system and losing the Estonian language test as part of the naturalisation process for Estonian citizenship. So, while the mathematics makes sense—60 seats between Reform and Centre Party would secure a comfortable majority—in terms of substance, the two parties have irreconcilable differences that will be very difficult to overcome without losing large segments of their support.

The Reform Party has ruled out a coalition with EKRE since the two parties share very little. It is more likely that Reform will form a coalition with Isamaa and the Social Democrats. However, talks are still ongoing.

In terms of foreign and security policy, it is very unlikely to see any changes. Foreign and defence policy based on principles of openness, cooperation, strong multilateral institutions and an international rules-based order will continue. It has been a custom in Estonian politics since the 1990s to leave matters of foreign and security policy out of the electoral contest. Foreign and defence policy is run by an underlying societal consensus and overseen by civil servants, parliamentarians and government. However, it will be interesting to see how much Kaja Kallas’s experiences in Brussels affect Estonia’s role and image in the European Union.

The elections of 2019 confirmed Estonia’s future direction as an open and progressive country. EKRE’s increased role in Parliament will affect the political debates over the next four years. The grievances of EKRE’s voters cannot be ignored, and this has also been noted by Kaja Kallas. How well Kallas manages to integrate and satisfy EKRE’s supporters will determine the future political landscape of Estonia. However, for now, Estonia’s progressive and open direction is clear and also visible. If Kaja Kallas becomes the Prime Minister, Estonia will be led by a female Prime Minister and President.

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