Estonian political parties and policies from a 'Western' viewpoint: Part 1

Trying to keep on top of the movements of the political parties in Estonia can be a bit like herding the proverbial cats at times, particularly now we're in election season. From an "anglophone"* perspective, there are plenty of parties — around nine in all, three in government, three in opposition and three more potentially winning a few seats in March. This compares with three and a half parties in Britain (UKIP is the "half"), outside of Northern Ireland, plus the two major Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties. Or the two perennial players in the US, with a population about 250 times that of Estonia.

But this is indeed from an anglophone, rather than a broader "Western" perspective, and thus is a minority view — many Western European countries have an even wider selection come Election Day; Switzerland has a whopping 15 parties represented at the federal and/or canton level, plus about a dozen smaller parties, some of which are represented in municipalities.

Closer to home, in Finland, the proportion of parties in office, in opposition and unrepresented stands at 3:5:8 right now. Finland also sends MEPs to the European Parliament from seven different parties to Estonia's three (Finland admittedly has twice as many MEPs). The picture is similar in other Scandinavian countries. With nine the 'magic number' of elected parties both there and in any Baltic state beginning with the letter L, expect the March 2019 elections to harvest the same figure Estonia.

Distorted mirror

The rights and wrongs of larger numbers of parties — a "fragmented" Riigikogu being unworkable is one criticism — as well as the optimum figure are beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice to say that whilst Estonia's population may be smaller than all the aforementioned, it is a) growing while Latvia's and Lithuania's are shrinking and b) there are even smaller nations with more parties in parliament (eg Iceland, with eight represented parties).

The mirror we'll hold up to the political landscape is, it has to be said, obscured in parts by dust or even distorted a little, funfair-style, so apply the following caveats to what follows:

1) A lot of wheeler dealing between political players and patrons happens behind the scenes; some is apparent, such as the Centre Party until recently controlling Tallinn city government (it still does) while the national government belonged to Reform; the 2016 presidential election highlighted the fact that this had limits, however, though the current president is probably quite close to senior Reform people.

2) Following on from 1), this means that a lot of the ideals which parties espouse on paper are, often very clearly, window-dressing.

3) Following on from both, it's in the interests of the senior coalition party (at the moment Centre) to make its junior partners, on which it is reliant, look good, (almost) regardless of policies and personalities.

Both the d'Hondt system and the phenomenon of vote-aggregating "politicians" being unveiled in the lead-up to an election help to maintain the status quo.

There are two elections next year in fact, with the EU parliamentary elections in May giving Estonia one more seat following post-Brexit redistribution.

The commitment to coalition government being the only way also plays a role in this style vs content tension; fear of what a party with an absolute majority may do (and that goes for all the parties, not just EKRE) makes this unlikely to change.

Pet projects

Nonetheless, there are some core battleground issues to which parties commit, as well as broader worldview dogmas. After all, this is the country where Olympic gold medallist decathlete and former Pro Patria MP Erki Nool can coolly state that athletes and social democracy do not mix, presumably seeing the free market-oriented parties who espouse competition more as the natural home for former Olympic gold medallist skier Kristina Šmigun-Vähi, who did indeed recently join Reform, or former sumo wrestler Kaido Höövelson (Baruto), who contra-wise joined Centre.

Centre Party

Let's survey the individual parties' main pet projects, in two parts, starting with the three governmental parties. As a rule of thumb, these correspond to how the three coalition parties carve up the ministries. Reform's ministries, as it is out of office, would roughly equate to Centre's.

Health — SDE's difficult pregnancy

The health sector is currently undergoing a process of improvements to make it truly digital and centralised, and to impose further a UK-style GP/family doctor for minor illnesses and referrals to specialists. This is very much under the watchful eye of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDE). SDE are the "nice" party, with a clearer and more coherent worldview than Centre, with a canny leader in Jevgeni Ossinovski, and some ministerial talent (Indrek Saar, Andres Anvelt). To her and the party's credit, Minister of Health and Labour Riina Sikkut comes from a health policy background, and keeps her head down and focused on the job.

There is still a long way to go with health, however, including further public education so as to get away from situations including people visiting a specialist for a battery of tests when they have a minor cold. This is funded by the social tax, which is a bare minimum of €141 per month and generally levied at the rate of 33% of most incomes. The social tax also goes toward the state pension. Other parties (mostly Reform) wanting to dismantle the system whilst its evolution gathers momentum will face a stiff fight; a trade-off may be permission to tamper with excise duty rates.

SDE were mired a few months ago, but have rallied more recently.

Education — Centre's school project

Whilst Centre is the majority coalition party, it's second on the list because it seems to be lacking in ideas a lot of the time. Part of the problem is that, whilst having an amiable enough and increasingly seasoned leader/prime minister in Jüri Ratas, it is still riven with factions and saddled with the legacy of its founder Edgar Savisaar, a looming, Ian Paisley-like figure who was at the forefront of the drive for peaceful Estonian independence without the tanks being sent in (this in fact did happen, but nobody was killed).

Centre is such a broad church that individuals can bring the machine to a shuddering halt temporarily, whilst it is patched up, without any risk of facing an inquisition; Aivar Riisalu, the MP who recently called for "remilitarising" Estonia's eastern border, replete with conscripts, machine gun nests (presumably) etc., is one such example.

One exception where Centre is a market leader is in education. It, or at least its Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps, favours kindergartens for all, at the other end of the educational cycle more on research and development, and maintaining Russian-language education in majority Russian-speaking areas, to name but three significant banners.

Centre will continue to struggle keeping its various interest groups happy and with waning support from its traditional base of the Russian-speaking community, could find itself out of office altogether come March.

The centre-right, conservative Isamaa/Pro Patria Party has established its go-ahead, entrepreneurial credentials ahead of March 2019, perhaps in an effort to move away from the more familiar "wooly jumper" image, or more likely for any sort of differentiation. The party rebranded itself earlier this year, and now wishes to dispense with individual contributions to pension funds (called the "second pillar") in two stages, first by making it voluntary and then, since this is tantamount to stage two, doing away with it altogether.

This is supposed to give the people more control over finances, as they can decide where and through whom they want to invest their money. The move is more Reform ground, but more radical than the latter who wish to retain the second pillar. It may be aimed at hiving off bits of their and Estonia 200's support. In any case the party inherited the finance ministry from Reform two years before the latter's governmental demise.

Much more set in stone is Pro Patria's trump card, the Ministry of Justice, which the raffishly efficient Urmas Reinsalu has made his own in the three and a half years he's been there.

Pro Patria is feeling the squeeze from all sides and would do well to be in office after the elections, though it will continue to send MPs to the Riigikogu, and most likely one to Brussels too.

In the next part, we'll take a look at the opposition Reform Party, as well as EKRE, the Free Party and the nascent Estonia 200, and some other general policy areas.

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*Not just the US, Australia and Britain, but add India, Ireland, South Africa, Jamaica, Canada, New Zealand etc.

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