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Estonia - General Elections

General elections in Estonia, a round up one week before the vote

General elections in Estonia, a round up one week before the vote

26/02/2007 - D-7

Nearly 940,000 Estonian voters (+ 80,000 in comparison with the general elections on 2nd March 2003) are being called to ballot on 4th March next to renew the 101 members of the Riigikogu (Parliament). Citizens can fulfil their civic duty in three different ways. They can go to any one of the 133 polling stations established across the country, or they can vote early or by post. Voters who chose to do the latter went to either of the polling stations between 19th and 23rd February (a measure which was tested for the European elections on 13th June 2004) and have to return to the polling station they have been allocated to between 26th and 28th February in the community where they live.

Estonians may vote by internet on a site especially set up by the Electoral Commission So that the electronic voting is undertaken satisfactorily and that each has the correct material at his disposal (a correctly installed programme on his computer, a valid ID card and a voting card equipped with a microchip), the authorities carried out some trial voting over a period of a few days in which nearly 4,000 voters took part. Internet voting will be allowed on the same days as early voting, 26th and 28th February next. Those who choose to vote like this will be able to change their vote as they wish up to three days after their initial choice. This question was the subject of a case that came before the State Court in 2005 on the initiative of the President of the Republic, Arnold Rüütel, who notably perceived in this a violation of the constitutional principle of equality. But the Court decided that not only was the chance given to voters to modify their electronic vote acceptable and in line with the Constitution, but it was also necessary to guarantee the freedom and secrecy of the ballot. Cyber voters will also be able to decide to go to their polling station on 4th March; if this is the case the slip they put into the box will cancel out their electronic vote.

There are many internet users in Estonia (around 730,000). This is not a result of chance but of a deliberate policy to develop ITC's: the establishment of a pluri-annual training and development scheme in ITC's and heavy commitment on the part of the public authorities who offer citizens many administrative services on-line. Since 2000 1% of the budget has been dedicated to the development of the information society. The Baltic Republic is also on the leading edge with regard to e-government: the Council of Ministers of Tallinn in 2000 was the first in the world to do away with paper during its working sessions.

On 10th and 12th October 2005 the Estonians were the first in the world to vote by internet in a national vote during the local elections on 16th October. Slightly less than 10,000 people i.e. 2% of voters chose this new way of voting. The chairman of the Electoral Commission Heiki Sibul hopes to see this figure doubled in the voting on 4th March next.

975 candidates are running in this election, (+12 in comparison with the elections on 2nd March 2003) of whom 968 have been registered by 11 political parties and 7 are independent candidates. The Centre Party (K), the Reform Party (ER), the Union of the Estonian People (ERL), Pro-Patria Union-Res Publica (IRL), the Social Democrat Party (SDE) and the Greens of Estonia (EER) are each putting forward 125 candidates; the Christian Democrat Party EKD), 108; the Constitution Party; 53; the Russian Party of Estonia (VEE), 35; and finally the Left Party and the Independence Party (EIP) 12 each.

Four MEPs (out of the 6 in Estonia) – the Social Democrats Marianne Mikko, Katrin Saks and Andres Tarand as well as Siiri Oviir from the Centre Party – will be standing. If they are elected and decide assume their new term in office they will have to resign from their positions in the European Parliament, since Estonian law prevents them from having both a European mandate and a seat in the national parliament.

All of the ministers in the government led by Andrus Ansip (ER) are standing in the general election. In Tallinn Finance Minister Aivar Soerd (ERL), and Justice Minister, Rein Lang (ER), are standing in the constituency that brings the areas of Haabersti, Kristiine and the north of the capital together. They will be facing Jaak Aaviksoo (IRL), former Education minister and former rector of the University of Tartu. Edgar Savisaar (K), the Centre Party leader and Economy and Communications Minister along with Jürgen Ligi (ER), Defence Minister will be running against the Pro Patria Union-Res Publica candidate for Prime Minister, Mart Laar in the 1st constituency of Tallin comprising areas in the town centre, Lasnamaë and Pirita. Foreign Minister Urmas Paet (ER) and Ethnic Affairs Minister, Paul-Eerik Rummo (ER), are standing in the constituency comprising the areas of Mustamäe and Nõmme. In the provinces Jaak Aab (K) Social Affairs Minister is standing in the constituency of Järva and Viljandi; Agriculture Minister, Ester Tuiksoo (ERL) is standing in the constituency of Võru, Valga and Põlva. Interior Minister, Kalle Laanet and Culture Minister Raivo Palamarus are standing for the Centre Party in the constituency of Pärnu. In the constituency of Jõgeva and Tartu (excluding the town of Tartu), Villu Reiljan, Environment Minister and Jaan Õunapuu, Regional Affairs Ministers will represent the Union of the Estonian People. Finally Education and Science Minister, Meilis Reps (K) will be facing Andrus Ansip (ER), in the constituency of Harju and Rapla where Taavi Veskimägi (IRL), co-chair of Pro-Patria Union-Res Republica and former Finance Minister will also be running, along with one of the leaders of the Green Party of Estonia, Marek Strandberg.

Present Prime Minister Andrus Ansip says that he is confident about his re-election as head of government. Over the last few months he has seen that the ruling parties in several countries of Central and Eastern Europe have all been re-elected, such as in Hungary in April 2006 and in Latvia in October 2006. "Estonia has always had stable government coalitions in comparison with those at the start of the century but not stable enough to last an entire term in office. I think the country is mature enough for this today," he maintained.

According to Reform Party spokesperson Secretary General Kristen Michal she says her party hopes to win 27 seats in the Riigikogu. The Centre Party is hoping for 29 MPs, Pro Patria Union-Res Republica, 25, the Social Democrat Party has set the goal of winning 17 seats, the Union of the Estonian People and the Greens of Estonia hope for 15 and 10 representatives respectively and finally the Christian Democrat Party are aiming for 5 seats.

The Centre Party and Pro Patria Union-Res Republica purchased air time together on the private TV channel TV3 for the organisation of several electoral debates. These will be undertaken live at the Museum of Art and will be hosted by Hannes Võrno, one of the channel's popular presenters. A candidate from each of the parties standing for the position of Prime Minister, Edgar Savisaar for the Centre Party and Mart Laar for Pro Patria Union-Res Republica will meet on three occasions to address themes such as taxation, the organisation of the State and security. The audience will be able to ask questions. "The next Prime Minister will come from the party that wins the general elections, the Centre Party or the Reform Party. This debate is therefore a competition organised to designate the parties who will take second and third place during the election and to give out the silver and bronze medals even though we know who will win beforehand," said Reform Party Secretary General Kristen Michal.

The president of the parliamentary group for the Union of the Estonian People Jaanus Männik said that the agreement signed by his party and the Centre Party on 14th August last – which stipulated the formation of an electoral alliance between the two parties whereby if they won the position of Prime Minister would go to the leader of the party having won the most votes – is not longer valid. The Union of the People of Estonia says that it is now ready to work with any other political party.

Some political observers are forecasting post-electoral co-operation between the Reform Party and the Centre Party saying that although the two parties attract voters from opposite sides of the electoral arena (the Centre Party being left wing claiming to be the spokesperson for "the modest people" and the Reform Party, a liberal party believed to be closer to the elites) they are complementary and might win enough votes to create the next government coalition alone.

The parties are due to spend over 100 million crowns (6.4 million euro) for this electoral campaign (+ 40 in comparison with the last elections in 2003). The Centre Party has assessed its expenditure at 30 million crowns, the Reform Party at over 20 million just like Pro Patria Union-Res Republica; the Union of the Estonian People thinks it will spend around 13 million crowns and the Social Democrat Party and the Green Party, 6 million each. In January the Social Democrats suggested that campaign spending be capped at under 10 million crowns for each political party. "The fact that the parties are given a budget of 60 million crowns per year by the government and that most of this is given to advertising agencies is not a sensible use of the people's money," said Sven Mikser (SDE).

Parliament was due to adopt a law modifying the rules relative to the control of political party funding for this to be more effective and independent before the end of this term in office. On 17th May 2006, Allar Jõks, Chancellor of Law (an authority which is responsible peaceable monitoring of legality and constitutionality) referred the new law on political parties back to the Riigikogu saying that he believed it contrary to the Constitution). Observing Parliament's inertia Allar Jõks brought the issue before the State Court on 16th February. Writing the daily Postimees, he recalled: "It is unprecedented for the Riigikogu and government to support a law, to make a promise to the Chancellor of Law and to the people and that they do not fulfil that promise. MPs are responsible to the electorate and I hope that the latter will think carefully and not vote for those who fear honest elections." The Chancellor of Law is accusing MPs of having the neglected the draft law to the benefit of issues he qualifies as "populist" such as the status of the Bronze Solider, set up in 1947 in memory of the Red Army Soldiers who fell during the Second World War (adoption of the law protecting war graves on 10th January – the controversial adoption of the law on the dismantling of prohibited monuments on 15th February enabling the dismantling of the Bronze Soldier and vetoed by President of the Republic Toomas Hendrik Ilves on 22nd February since he believed it was contrary to six paragraphs in the Constitution). "Unfortunately I have to say that once again these elections will not be honest," says Allar Jõks who goes as far as saying: "If this issue which is so vital from a democratic point of view is not solved I can say that my seven year term in office that ends in March 2008 will have been a failure."

As in Latvia five months ago many political analysts are worried about the Estonian participation rate in this general election. According to the latest polls undertaken by Emor, 47% of voters said mid-January that they were certain they would go and vote, at the end of this month only 42% said this. Jaanika Hämmal, from Emor forecasts a 55% participation rate comprising the lowest level ever recorded for such elections (the participation rate rose to 58.24% in 2003, 57.43% in 1999, 69.06% in 1995 and 67.84% in 1992). According to political expert Rein Toomla from the University of Tartu, low motivation on the part of the voters can be explained by the "vacuity" of the electoral campaign rather than passivity on their part. In addition to this the latter believe even less in electoral promises since the parties are unable to fulfil them themselves - such as for example an increase in salaries although the Reform Party is campaigning under the banner of "A better salary for all" whilst the Centre Party is promoting for its part "A rich State, a better salary."

In an attempt to combat abstention an original experiment has been undertaken in Tartu where one of the polling stations has been established in one of the town centre's shopping malls. Rein Toomla doubts however that the new position of the polling station will have any real effect on the participation rate saying that this location might even frighten voters off. "We are beginning to return to the Soviet era – then there were polling stations in the cafés where beer was sold from six in the morning on," recalled the analyst. Some are placing their hopes on the electronic vote particularly with regard to the vote on the part of the young. "Electronic voting is a means for us to increase the participation rate," stressed Liia Hänni, director of the national e-government programme.

According to the latest polls the Centre Party is due to win the elections. According to a poll by Emor it will win 20% of the vote and will be followed by the Reform Party with 18%. The previous month both parties were practically equal with 18% for the Centre Party and 17% for the Reform Party. The Greens of Estonia, who are forging ahead, are due to take third place with 11%, ahead of Pro Patria Union-Res Republica (9%) which does not seem to have succeeded in coming through as the representative of the right. A survey by Emor reveals decline on the part of the Social Democrat Party and the Union of the Estonian People which respectively are due to win 4% and 2% only – below the 5% threshold required to be represented in parliament. Aagu Uudelepp press officer for the Union of the Estonian People commented on these forecasts ironically: "Before the last elections on 2nd March 2003 we were credited with 3% of the vote and yet we won 13%." A survey undertaken by Turu-uuringute mid-February revealed that one third of Estonians hoped that Andrus Ansip would be re-elected as Prime Minister: 31%, against 18% who would like the Centre Party leader, Edgar Savisaar, as head of government and 11% who would choose Maart Laar (IRL).

The good position held by the Greens of Estonia in the polls shows that the attraction for novelty is still high amongst the Estonians. This trend to give their confidence to recently formed parties has been shared by all three Baltic Republics since the fall of Communism. Forecasts still have to be confirmed however by the vote on 4th March, since the ecologist list comprises a great number of people totally unknown to the man in the street.
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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