May 30, 2019

What Do the 2019 European Parliament Elections in Estonia Tell Us?

The building of the European Parliament, designed by Architecture-Studio architects, is seen in Strasbourg, France.
The building of the European Parliament, designed by Architecture-Studio architects, is seen in Strasbourg, France.

Following March’s general elections, which produced an unexpected governing coalition, Estonian society still reels between confusion, disappointment and disagreement.

There is a desire to interpret the European Parliament elections as a referendum on the government, which the low turnout in the European Parliament elections does not allow to do. Domestic political turmoil continues in Estonia, leaving little room for healthy, reasoned and engaged discussion about Europe and its future.

The results tell three things.

In Estonia, the outcome of the European elections depends a great deal on who is running. Estonians tend to vote for the candidates who appeal to them most, and less so according to party. The success in previous elections of independent candidates such as Indrek Tarand, who won in 2009 and 2014, and this time of Marina Kaljurand of the Social Democratic Party (SDE), prove this point. Kaljurand received the third-highest number of votes overall (65,559), taking her fellow party member Sven Mikser (2,886 votes) to the European Parliament alongside her. By contrast, in the general elections in March, the SDE gained only 10 seats in the Estonian parliament (Riigikogu) with 9.8% of the vote, down from 15 seats. While support for the SDE has declined, individual candidates still receive high levels of support irrespective of their party affiliation.

While across Europe turnout rose considerably, in Estonia there was only a slight rise, from 36.5% in 2014 to 37.6%. For one thing, two elections in a row had an effect on the willingness of both people and parties to engage with the campaigns and elections. Campaigning started quite late, at the beginning of May, and was considerably quieter than previously or in the general election. Second, while support for European integration is high in Estonia, Estonians tend not to get involved in the policies and politics of the European Union. Knowledge of and interest in developments in the EU and its institutions is low, resulting in Estonians’ low sense of agency and ability to influence things in Europe.

Finally, the European Parliament elections were won by liberal forces, currently in opposition. The Reform Party and the SDE gained two seats each, while the coalition parties—the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, the Centre Party and Pro Patria—gained one seat each. (Pro Patria’s candidate will enter the European Parliament as Estonia’s seventh MEP following a reallocation after the departure of the UK.) Viewing the European elections as a referendum on the coalition is a tad far-fetched, since this ignores their peculiarities (the importance of individual candidates, and party platforms focusing on European issues, though pre-election debates often do not) and allows to make far too broad and thus weak generalisations (turnout in Estonia for the EP elections was 37.6%, against 63.7% in the general election). Nevertheless, support in Estonia for liberal pro-European political forces is clear, with the liberal opposition parties gaining four of the six seats currently available.