How do elections work in Estonia?

Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 25th February 2023

Estonia is undoubtedly one of eastern Europe’s biggest success stories since the collapse of communism – its economy has developed quickly (with a GDP (PPP) per capita now on a par with Japan) and it scores highly on all democracy indices (including sixth in the world on V-Dem’s Liberal Democracy index). On Sunday 5th March, Estonia will elect a new parliament for a four-year term. But how will the election take place and who will they be voting for?

The Estonian Voting System

Estonia’s parliament, the Riigikogu, is made up of 101 MPs elected using a Party List PR system. Voting is based on candidates though – voters see a list of all the candidates (with multiple from each party) standing in their constituency and vote by writing the allocated number of their favourite candidate in a box on the ballot paper, this vote also counts towards that candidate’s party.

Estonian Ballot Paper

Voters write the number of their favourite candidate in the box provided

Each of the 12 constituencies will elect more than one MP. To decide who they are in each constituency, the amount of votes needed to get elected ‘the quota’ is set based on ‘total votes / total seats’, e.g., if 8,000 votes were cast in an eight-seat constituency, the quota would be 1,000. Any candidates that won more votes than this are elected.

Parties win a seat for each time they exceed the quota – if their candidates in total won 2,800 votes with our 1,000-vote quota, they would win two seats; if they won 3,200 votes, they would win three seats. If they already won a seat in the first stage, that is subtracted from their total. Seats won at this stage are allocated to the party’s candidates in order of who won the most votes. Only those parties that won 5% of the vote nationally can win seats this way.

The final stage occurs at the national level, with any remaining seats allocated based on national vote totals using a modified version of the D’Hondt method. Again, a party must have won 5% of the vote nationally to win seats at this stage. Seats won at this level are awarded to candidates in the order they appear on the party’s list.

In terms of the partisan composition of parliament, it is this final step that is most decisive – with the overall result effectively being a national list system with a 5% threshold.

Estonia is a pioneer in electronic voting, with voters able to vote over the internet since the 2005 municipal elections. Although only 3% of voters voted online in 2007 (the first national e-elections anywhere in the world), that number had reached 44% by the last election in 2019. Such voting is made possible by Estonia’s smart ID cards.

Estonian Parties and Government

Unlike a lot of eastern Europe, Estonia has developed a fairly stable and recognisable moderate multi-party system, with between four and six parties winning seats in recent elections.

The most dominant party in Estonian politics has been the economically and socially liberal Reform Party, who have held the position of Prime Minister for 14 of the past 20 years and been a junior partner in government for another four. The centre-right party has consistently polled 28-29% of the vote in the last four elections.

The second-largest party has been the Centre Party, which has won 23-26% of the vote in recent elections and models itself on the Scandinavian parties of the same name. Ideologically, it has been a little hard to pin down, but it is typically seen as broadly populist. The party has seen a bit of a dent in popularity in the last year due to its association with Estonia’s Russian minority.

Two other parties have held a continuous position in parliament and have participated in multiple recent governments – the centre-left Social Democratic Party and the conservative Isamaa (literally Fatherland). Both parties have averaged in the mid-teens over the last few elections.

Despite Estonia’s solid liberal democratic credentials, it hasn’t been able to escape the right-wing populist wave that has touched virtually every European country in the last decade. The far-right Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) is strongly majoritarian and, in line with Italy’s far-right wishes to abolish proportional representation.

The largest party not to win seats at the last election were Estonia 200, a social liberal party who fell short of the 5% threshold. They are expected to win seats next Sunday.

Governments in Estonia have typically been coalitions of two or three parties – currently the Reform Party govern with Isamaa and the Social Democrats under Reform PM Kaja Kallas. She has gained international and domestic support for her strong leadership over the invasion of Ukraine, a key issue for a country that also borders Russia, with this expected to help secure Reform another term as largest party in the Riigikogu.

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