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Estonia - General Elections

General elections in Estonia, 4th march 2007

General elections in Estonia, 4th march 2007

05/02/2007 - Analysis

On 30th November 2006 and in line with the Constitution, the President of the Republic, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, declared that the elections for the 11th term in office will take place on 4th March 2007. In his announcement that was broadcast on the state TV channel Eesti Televisioon, the Head of State called on politicians not to make unrealistic promises and to undertake an honest electoral campaign. Calling on voters for more rigour he said: "The choice to be made by each citizen in March is very simple. Should you sign a deal or a contract? In a deal you are likely to receive something real in return for your vote, for example a higher salary or more benefits. However beware of being deceived because employers pay the salaries and not the candidates. A contract includes a plan of action for the next four years. It details the reasons and the cost of the reforms it is putting forward. In the debate between signing a deal and a contract I would recommend you sign the contract."

919, 268 Estonians registered on the electoral rolls are therefore being called to vote for their Parliament for the fifth time since the restoration of Estonia's sovereignty in 1991 and for the 11th time since its independence in 1918. In the last elections on 2nd March 2003 the number of voters rose to 859,714 that is 59, 554 less than this time. Most of the new voters are Russian speaking. In the next election the generation born during the "Singing Revolution" (at the end of the 80's, the populations of the three Baltic States rallied together a number of times to sing nationalist songs that had been prohibited until then; this movement led to the independence of the three former Soviet Republics) will be voting for the very first time. In addition to this 19,000 expatriate Estonians will vote in these general elections. Finally we should add that voters will be able to vote electronically. More than 3,600 have already undertaken the necessary steps to become holders of an electronic electoral card. Tested for the first time during the local elections on 16th October 2005 Estonia is repeating the experiment during the election on 4th March undoubtedly placing it amongst the pioneer States in the world in terms of Internet voting.

The political system

The Constitution which was adopted by referendum on 28th June 1992 establishes a democratic parliamentary regime in which Parliament occupies a major position. Parliament (Riigikogu), the only Chamber, enjoys a great number of competences as the holder of legislative power. Notably it is parliament that can adopt the State budget, decide on the organisation of a referendum, ratify international treaties, authorise the candidate for the position of Prime Minister to create a government and elect the President of the Republic.

The 101 members of the Riigikogu are elected every four years by proportional voting within 12 plurinominal constituencies (between 6 and 13 seats per constituency). All political parties must win a minimum of 5% of the votes cast in order to be represented in Parliament.

Candidates must be aged at least 21. The prerequisite of being fluent in the Estonian language for any candidate standing in the general elections, a law established in 1998, was finally abolished in 2001. MPs can however be obliged to fulfil this linguistic requirement in that Estonian is the only recognised working language in the Riigikogu which is not without significance in a country where a great number of Russian speakers have made their home.

The government led by Andrus Ansip (Reform Party, RE) since 13th April 2005, comprises 13 members excluding the Prime Minister. It is formed of a coalition between the Reform Party, the Centre Party (K) and the People's Union (ERL).

The partisan system resembles the Scandinavian one and is split into four trends which share almost equal importance: the conservatives, the liberals, the social-democrats, and the agrarians. The country does not have an extremist or truly populist party.

Six political parties are represented at present in the Riigikogu:

- the Centre Party (K), the leading political party led by Economy and Telecommunications Minister, Edgar Savisaar. It lies to the left of the political scale and the party is a member of the government coalition with 21 MPs;

- Res Publica (Res), a rightwing party led by Taavi Veskimägi. Winner of the last general elections on 2nd March 2003 the party governed the country from 10th April 2003 to 24th March 2005 (government coalition led by Juhan Parts). It has 25 MPs;

- the Reform Party (ER), a liberal party led by Prime Minister Andrus Ansip in office since April 2005 with 19 MPs;

- the Estonian People's Union (ERL), a member of the government coalition, this party is led by Villu Reiljan (re-elected as party leader on 24th November last) It has 12 MPs;

- Pro-Patria Union (I), a Christian-Democrat party led by Tõnis Lukas, has 7 MPs;

- the Social Democrat Party (SDE) former Popular Party of Moderates (M), is the party of President of the Republic Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and led by Ivari Padar. It has 6 MPs;

11 MPs have no political affiliation.

On 4th June 2006 Res Republica and the Pro-Patria Union merged to become Pro-Patria Union-Res Republica (IRL). Tõnis Lukas (I) and Taavi Veskimägi (Res) became the join leaders of the new party.

Two months later on 14th August, the Centre Party and the Estonian People's Union signed a strategic co-operation agreement, primarily with the presidential election in August in mind (in support of outgoing President, Arnold Rüütel), and secondly in view of the general elections. The agreement plans for the creation of an electoral alliance whereby if it wins; the post of Prime Minister will go to the leader of the party which has won the greatest number of votes. Both parties hope to create an "electoral bloc" until 2011. Amongst the 18 proposals included in the agreement both parties favour a strengthening of the State, an increase in the lowest income tax threshold, a rise in retirement pensions, the re-introduction of a more progressive income tax and the reform of the healthcare system.

The situation of the Russian-speaking Minority

Estonia is the least populous of the three Baltic Republics. It has 1.3 million inhabitants including 67.9% Estonians, 25.6% Russians (around 400,000 people), 2.1% Ukrainians and 1.3% Belarusians (figures taken from the 2000 census). The country is also more Nordic than Baltic, since Estonian is not an Indo-European language but belongs to the Finno-Ugric family that includes Finnish and Hungarian.

Just after independence Estonian nationality was automatically granted to all those living in Estonia before 1940 as well as their descendants. A three-year residence permit was given to other citizens who were forced to sit a language exam and swear allegiance to the Republic of Estonia to gain in turn Estonian nationality. In June 1993 relations between Estonians and Russians worsened after the adoption of the law obliging people who did not have Estonian nationality to choose between acquisition or rejection which potentially meant remaining foreigners forever in the country where they lived. In 1995, the Riigikogu adopted a new law with regard to citizenship that was more demanding than the previous one for people wanting to acquire Estonian nationality. The latter have to be aged at least 16 and to have lived in Estonia for a minimum of five years previous to their request and an additional year after that. They also have to know the Constitution and the law on citizenship, receive a legal income adequate to meeting their needs as well as those living with them; finally they have to swear allegiance saying: "I swear to remain faithful to the constitutional system of Estonia." But the most restrictive demand for foreigners was and remains a linguistic one, since the 1995 law maintained the obligatory examination for their aptitude with regard to Estonian (article 8 of the Law on Citizenship). Estonia has taken draconian measures to protect its language and its culture which were subservient to the Soviet system for decades. The knowledge of Estonian is therefore obligatory in order to have certain occupations, notably in the public sector (article 5 of the Law on Language). Many foreigners believe the laws on citizenship to be an obstacle to naturalisation, since the conditions demanded are far too severe, language courses far too expensive with far too few teachers. The EU has worked greatly towards the relaxation of the linguistic criteria for the naturalisation of foreigners and the facilitation of access to certain posts. Estonian is spoken by a great majority of citizens (83.4%) whilst 15.3% speak Russian. 170,000 people who lost Russian nationality but who are not considered Estonian (and who therefore are stateless) live in Estonia, mainly in urban and industrial areas in the north west of the country.

On 7th December last Amnesty International published a report on the situation of the minorities in the Baltic Republic entitled Linguistic Minorities in Estonia: Discrimination Must End. Although efforts have been made to integrate the Russian-speaking minority Amnesty International denounces the high cost of Estonian language courses and recommends them to be free (at present they are only reimbursed to those who pass the exam). Amnesty International suggests a modification of the laws obliging employees to speak a certain level of Estonian including in the Russian-speaking regions. This measure increases unemployment rates amongst part of the population (13% of the unemployed within the minorities, versus 5% amongst Estonians in 2005). The organisation stresses that the criteria for employment with regard to citizenship and language both in the public and private sectors limit access to employment for the Russian-speakers. Indeed Russian-speakers cannot accede to certain posts including in the private sector because they do not speak Estonian sufficiently well in regions where the vast majority of clients with whom their profession would bring them into contact are Russian-speakers (for example in Narva where 93% of the population speaks Russian). Finally Amnesty International has asked Estonia for an in depth review of the structure and working methods of the departments responsible for the evaluation of linguistic competence as well as a review of its decision not to acknowledge the Russian minority as a linguistic minority. Indeed according to the law on cultural autonomy of national minorities only citizens can be considered members of a national minority. Consequently nearly 15% of the Estonian population, although they belong to the Russian minority, are deprived of rights set aside specifically for ethnic minorities in the Constitution and in the Framework Convention for the protection of national minorities (ratified by Estonia in 1996). Those who do not have Estonian nationality cannot enjoy the rights and fundamental freedom that the Constitution grants to any individual including certain rights specific to ethnic minorities (article 51 : the right for everyone to receive replies from the public administration in a minority language).

For the last few months the political community has been squabbling over a monument erected in 1947 in memory of the soldiers of the Red Army who fell during the Second World War. The statue which lies in the Tõnismägi Square in the centre of the capital is called "Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn", or more generally "The Bronze Solider" and has become the bone of contention between Estonian nationalists and the Russian-speaking minority. A year and a half ago the situation became particularly bad since a monument dedicated to the freedom fighters of independent Estonia representing a soldier in an SS uniform erected on the initiative of the leaders of the community of Lihula was dismantled after a decision by the then Prime Minister Juhan Parts (Res). After that there were several acts of vandalism on the monuments to those who died in the Second World War including the one in Tõnismägi Square which was attacked twice in May 2005. On 9th May every year Red Army veterans living in Estonia meet at the statue that supposedly contains the remains of Soviet soldiers and who they believe to be a symbol of the resistance to Nazism and a tribute to the victims. In an attempt to solve the problem Prime Minister Andrus Ansip requested the dismantling and the displacement of the Bronze Soldier to a cemetery outside of the town which is now guarded day and night by policemen since the events in May 2005. The law on the protection of war memorials adopted by the Riigikogu on 10th January and ratified the next day by the President of the Republic Toomas Hendrik Ilves now allows the government to search the area where the Bronze Soldier stands, and if necessary, recover the remains of the Red Army soldiers and bury them in a cemetery thereby enabling them to dismantle the said statue. Although the Reform Party is in favour of moving the monument, the Centre Party is against this like the majority of the Russian-speakers and the Constitution Party (KP), formerly the Estonian United Russian People's Party (EÜRP) and the main Russian-speaking movement led by Andrej Zarenkov. "Why don't we demolish all the buildings constructed by the Soviets after the war as well?" asks Dmitri Klenski, candidate for the Constitution Party. Nochnoi Dozor, a movement that comprises mostly Russian speakers promised on 15th January to protect the statue in the Tõnismägi Square. "Our memory, our monuments and ourselves are inseparable from the history and culture of Estonia," reads a statement in their press release. "This monument is sacred because it is a tomb even though we are not sure that people are buried under the statue. But since it symbolises the Soviet occupation it must be removed," stressed Mart Laar. For his part former Prime Minister (1995-1997) Tiit Vähi, who maintained he voted for the Reform Party in the general elections in 2003 said that he would vote for the Centre Party in the next election. "When you have to exhume someone and bury them again to win votes, the interest is not in Estonia anymore," he said referring to the present polemic about the monument in Tõnismägi Square.

The Campaign and the General Election Stakes

During the general elections of 2003 Res Republica was the Centre Party's main adversary, now the latter is the main opponent of the Reform Party led by the Prime Minister. The two parties are however members of the present government. "The confrontation will occur in terms of ideology: either we continue on the road of taxation that has led to Estonia's success or the left will win and will commence a policy of redistribution," stressed Kristen Michal, Secretary General of the Reform Party.

The main aim of the Prime Minister's party, standing himself in the constituency comprising the regions of Harjumaa and Raplamaa is to make Estonia one of the five most prosperous States in the EU within the next 15 years. To do this the Reform Party hopes to reduce taxation rates (by bringing the income tax rate down from 23% to 18% in four years), followed by a tax exemption policy for all companies which invest, the simplification of the procedure for a company to establish itself in Estonia, and more investment in companies, nurseries, education and research. The Prime Minister is quick to detail the list of dangers created by the Centre Party and the Estonian People's Union: increases in taxes, an increase in the control exercised by the State on the country's economy, the politicisation of society and finally the modification of the present direction adopted in terms of foreign policy.

Internationally the Reform Party would like to tighten co-operation between the Baltic States and those in Northern Europe. The party is fighting to abolish the obligatory visa system for Estonians visiting the USA. Finally it would like to show solidarity with the Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia as opposition forces against Belarus and hopes to help them continue on their road to democracy.

Andrus Ansip will be leading candidate of the Reform Party list. He will be followed by Foreign Minister Urmas Paet. Amongst the first ten candidates put forward by the party are the Mayor of Tartu, Laine Jänes, Justice Minister, Rein Lang, the party's Secretary General, Kristen Michal, the Mayor of Võru, Ivi Eenmaa and former Director General of the Police, Robert Antropov, who joined the Reform Party in November last. "I am not joining the Reform Party in the hope of winning an honorary position but because I believe that with this team we can make Estonia a safer country for everyone," he maintained.

"Next spring we shall be able to take our revenge and clench the victory stolen from us in the presidential election last autumn," said Centre Party leader and present Economy and Telecommunications Minister, Edgar Savisaar. The main opposition party's programme which stands as the spokesperson for the Estonians that suffer and who are struggling in a liberal economy is focussed on the establishment of a strong, protective State. The party is promising to increase salaries in the public sector up to 25, 000 crowns in four years and to employ more civil servants (teachers, policemen, social workers). "What the Reform Party is leading us to is a Friday without taxes but which has been preceded by a Monday without teachers, a Tuesday without policemen, a Wednesday without doctors and a Thursday without firemen," declared Kadri Must, Secretary General of the Centre Party. He added, "they are promising to make Estonia one of the five most prosperous countries in Europe but are not prepared to increase salaries to a European level. The Reform Party will keep its promises designed for the "happy few" but for workers, the Reform Party's policy will be synonymous with stagnation."

Edgar Savisaar said he was sorry to see that the Social Democrat Party had preferred to work until now with rightwing parties and invited it to join forces with his party. The Centre Party leader also said that he did not see why his party should merge with the Estonian People's Union. According to him the two parties, which are the two most important in the country count over 10,000 members together but each have their own history and voters.

At the end of November former Environment Minister Villu Reiljan was re-elected President of the Estonian People's Union. He has led the party since 2000. "We are the only party to have kept our promises," said Agu Uudelepp, the party's press attaché. To illustrate what he said he promoted the absence of taxation on revenues inferior to 2,000 crowns, the establishment of a retirement pension at 3,000 crowns and family allowance from the second child on. The party's leader is followed on the list of candidates by Erika Salumäe, twice Olympic track cycling champion (1988 and 1992).

Lying to the right of the political scale the Pro-Patria Union-Res Republica maintains it is fighting so that all Estonians can take advantage of the work undertaken over the last 16 years. Former Prime Minister (1992-1994 and 1999-2002) Mart Laar, who announced in September that he was not retiring from politics after all and that he was available for the general elections, will be standing for the party for the post of Prime Minister. He was preferred rather than former Education minister Jaak Aaviksoo who resigned from his position of rector of the University of Tartu on 20th September last to take part in the elections. Mart Laar announced that he will maintain his seat on the board of Swedbank until 4th March. Swedbank, owner of the first Estonian bank Hansabank, is the leading financial establishment of the countries lying on the Baltic. Mart Laar is standing in the first constituency of Tallinn comprising areas of the town centre, Lasnamäe and Pirita, where he will face amongst others Edgar Savisaar, Centre Party leader and Jürgen Ligi (ER), present Defence Minister. Mart Laar and Jaak Aaviksoo are followed on the party's list of candidates by the two co-leaders of the new party, Tõnis Lukas and Taavi Veskimägi, and former Prime Minister (2003-2005) Juhan Parts. The Pro-Patria Union-Res Republica list also includes Olympic decathlon champion (2000) Erki Nool, actors Merle Jääger, Ago-Endrik Kerge and Elle Kull and the former Mayor of Tallinn, Tõnis Palts. Also standing will be the former commander in chief of the defence forces, Vice-Admiral Tarmo Kõuts, who joined the party last December.

On 25th October 2006, Pro-Patria Union-Res Republica merged with the Farmers' Assembly, (PK), a conservative movement with 1,441 members and led by Tõnu Ojamaa. Pro Patria Union-Res Republica whose campaign slogan is "Happiness does not lie in money" has defined four vital issues: growth, healthcare, emigration and Europe, "We must be more involved in Europe". According to Mart Laar two essential themes can be added to these four issues: the ageing population and the energy problem. "It is time for Estonia to understand that if the present government continues its policy the country will soon no longer be competitive," maintained the former Prime Minister.

The Social Democrat Party, a leftwing movement, would like a stronger State. "The State of Law and social security must grow as quickly as Estonian economy growth," declared Peeter Kreitzberg, head of the group, who wrote the party's programme. The latter highlights are education, the fight against unemployment, the environment, healthcare, good governance and the fight against emigration of workers towards other EU States as its priorities. "The party's goal is to construct a protective State. Estonia must not become a place where no one wants to live. We must stem the flow of emigration and bring Estonians home by giving them decent salaries," stressed the party's president, Ivari Padar. To finance these reforms the party suggests freezing income taxes and establishing a new rate of taxation. Amongst the five leading candidates on the party's list are Ivari Padar, followed by Eiki Nestor, former Social Affairs Minister, Andres Tarand, MEP and Sven Mikser, former Defence Minister. Far behind them is Ardi Ravalepik, a homosexual activist. Ravalepik, 27, director for the Gay and Lesbian Information Centre has announced that he would like to fight in Parliament for values and against hate: "I shall not be the homosexual and transsexual representative but I shall fight for the social rights of all Estonians."

A new party, the Greens of Estonia (EER) was created on 25th November last in Tallinn. Born of a non profit making association "Initiative Group of the Green Party", it now comprises more than 1,500 members and is led by four people (Peeter Jalakas, Valdur Lahtvee, Maret Merisaar and Marek Strandberg). The ecologists emerged in Estonia on the country's independence. The Green Movement of Estonia, founded in 1988 for an improved co-ordination of work in the fight led against Moscow's project to produce phosphorous in the 1980's was even the first political alternative to the Communist Party. In 1991, the Green Movement of Estonia split into two, one part of which transformed into the Green Party in 1995. The first Estonian Green Party was dissolved in 1998 after divisions within its ranks and the party's integration into the Centre Party. For the general elections on 4th March the ecologist programme focuses on three themes: the protection of the environment (development of renewable energy and major reductions in the use of oil shale, the main local fuel which Estonia is greatly reliant on), a healthy nation and finally direct democracy (the establishment of the popular initiative referendum both locally and nationally). We should note that the movement does not accord much importance to European issues. The trend would rather be towards resisting the development of the EU as highlighted in an article in the daily Postimees which brandished the headline on 1st December, "the Green Party is flirting slightly with an anti-European trend." One of the members of the party's board, Anti Poolamets, is a convinced Euro-sceptic and was a fervent defender of the "NO" camp in the referendum on 14th September 2003 to Estonia's accession to the EU. The Greens of Estonia say they are ready to work with any political party which respects its programme. Centre Party leader, Edgar Savisaar warned against the possibility of a coalition with the Reform Party, Pro-Patria Union-Res Republica and the Greens of Estonia. He accused Marek Strandberg, one of the Green leaders of being Mart Laar's "friend in arms" and of having helped him sell to roubles to the Chechens after the introduction of the Estonian crown in 1992. The Greens would like to repeat the performance achieved by Res Republica in the general elections in 2003 (the party, created just a year before the election won 24, 6% of the vote taking 28 seats) and hope to win 10 seats in Parliament. A survey undertaken in December by the Turu-uuringud Institute, credited them with 7% of the vote. "The fact that the members of our party have never belonged to other political parties and that some have never even voted before gives us hope that we shall attract voters who have refused to go to ballot in the past," declared Marek Strandberg. The more educated Estonians, who receive the highest incomes living in the centre and the west of the country are the ones with whom the ecologist movement will achieve the best results.

The President of the Republic, Toomas Hendrik Ilves said he was sorry that Europe did not have a higher profile in the electoral campaign, accusing the political parties of not putting forward a vision of Europe. "I hope and expect of the new government that it will adopt a clear stance on the role of Estonia in the EU and on what the country's priorities must be," stressed the Head of State.

According to a poll undertaken by the Turu-uuringud Institute 37% of voters would like to see Andrus Ansip remain in the position of Prime Minister, versus 17% who would prefer Edgar Savisaar in his place. 13% say they support Mart Laar, 6% Ivari Padar and 4% Villu Reiljan. The Centre Party leader is due to win the Russian vote (43%) and the present head of government that of the Estonians (42%).

President of the Republic, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, has said that he will ask the leader of the party which wins on 4th March next to form the future government. He recalled that he believed a mistake had been made after the elections of 7th March 1999 when the President of the Republic (1992-2001) Lennart Meri asked Mart Laar to form a government coalition, although it was the Centre Party led by Edgar Savisaar which had won the greatest number of votes.

According to the latest polls the race run by the two main parties, the Reform Party and the Centre Party, will be a close one. But if the two parties, the Centre Party and the Estonian People's Party succeed in rallying a great number of Estonians who believe they have been neglected in the country's economic growth, they might win the elections and put a halt to the country's liberal policy and privilege the re-distribution of State funds.

Reminder of the General Election Results on 2nd March 2003 in Estonia:

Participation rate: 58.20%

Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Rodolphe Laffranque
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