Piret Kuusik: What does the 2019 European Parliament election in Estonia tell us?

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

This article was originally published in the International Centre for Defence and Security’s blog.

There is a desire to interpret the European Parliament election as a referendum on the government, which the low turnout in the European Parliament election does not allow to do. Domestic political turmoil (following the formation of populist and far-right government by the Centre Party, the Estonian Conservative People’s Party and Isamaa – editor) continues in Estonia, leaving little room for healthy, reasoned and engaged discussion about Europe and its future.

The outcome depends on who is running

In Estonia, the outcome of the European election 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 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, the two elections in a row influenced the willingness of both the people and the 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.

Elections won by liberal parties

Finally, the European Parliament election was won by liberal forces, currently in opposition. The Reform Party and the SDE won two seats each, while the coalition parties – the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, the Centre Party and Isamaa – won a seat each (Isamaa’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, although 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 winning four of the six seats currently available.

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: The European Parliament candidates Evelin Ilves (Greens), Marina Kaljurand (Social Democrats) and Riho Terras (Isamaa) during a debate at the Tallinn Freedom Square on Europe Day, 9 May 2019. Only Kaljurand was elected outright (Terras will have to wait until the UK leaves the EU). The image is illustrative, courtesy of the EU Commission’s representation in Estonia.