Estonia’s cold March weather belies a political climate that, since its 3 March parliamentary election, has become increasingly heated. Integration into Western structures and a commitment to democracy and the rule of law have been the core ingredients of the country’s success since it regained independence, in 1991. Yet political developments in the wake of the election have cast doubt on this model. Negotiations over forming a new coalition government may drag on and bring more surprises but, thus far, they indicate that there has been a significant shift in Estonia’s political environment towards a more conservative, inward-looking, and narrowly nationalist agenda.
Estonia is not about to become another Poland – much less a Hungary. Yet the endurance of its democratic order cannot be taken for granted.
After slightly more than two years in opposition, the market liberalist Reform Party won the election by a surprisingly large margin, with 29 percent of the vote to the Centre Party’s 23 percent. However, the parties that came in second, third, and fourth soon launched negotiations on forming a coalition among themselves. These parties – the Centre Party, led by Prime Minister Jüri Ratas; the populist, radical right-wing Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE); and the mainstream national conservative Pro Patria – would in many ways make for uneasy coalition partners. However, their supporters tend to share conservative family values, a fear of migration, and rather sceptical views of the European Union (albeit largely without opposing membership of the organisation).
It is telling that, at the very beginning of the consultations, the three parties held a lengthy discussion of foreign policy matters that led to the shared position that Estonia will remain a member of the EU and NATO. This exercise was necessary largely due to the stridently anti-EU stance EKRE has taken in the past. Indeed, the party now insists that the question of leaving the EU is off the table.
The inclusion of EKRE is the most controversial aspect of the coalition-building process. Some Estonian commentators have made arguments in favour of involving it: EKRE would allegedly be more dangerous in opposition; the responsibility of governing would help tame the party; and one cannot ignore the people, close to one-fifth of voters, who supported it in the election. Furthermore, EKRE made the largest gains in the election, increasing its vote share to 18 percent, up from 8 percent in 2015.
However, recent polls show that most Estonians do not wish to see EKRE in government. In Estonia as in many other European countries, the rise of the radical right has polarised politics. The key dividing line runs between open and closed, liberal and conservative. Yet even many people with moderate conservative values strongly dislike EKRE. At the same time, liberal political forces are struggling to produce a compelling narrative that combines patriotism with liberal values and openness to the world.
A coalition of the Centre Party, EKRE, and Pro Patria could have several dangerous consequences. Firstly, in foreign policy, a small country such as Estonia can ill afford to narrowly defend its national interests and engage in international cooperation only where this has direct, obvious benefits. But leading members of EKRE openly admire US President Donald Trump and have adopted his rhetoric on international cooperation. Their emphasis on selfish national interest fails to account for the value of strong Western institutions to small states, especially in an international environment characterised by growing great power competition.
Estonian populists raise the valid point that their country’s politicians could do a better job of defining and protecting national positions and interests in the European Union. However, EKRE seems to question the core belief of Estonia’s European policy – namely, that a strong and well-functioning EU is vital to the country’s interests. This belief is reflected in the latest Eurobarometer survey, which finds that 69 percent of Estonian citizens support EU membership.
Secondly, a coalition involving the Centre Party and EKRE threatens to destabilise Estonian politics by marginalising Russian-speakers (who make up around one-quarter of the population). Thus far, most Russian-speaking voters have supported the Centre Party, while none of Estonia’s parties has specifically represented Russian-speakers – a situation that has helped tame political confrontation along ethnic lines. But the Centre Party is now rapidly losing its traditional support base among Russian-speakers, as they oppose its attempts to form a coalition with EKRE.
Finally, and most fundamentally, the rise of a party that is famous for making openly racist statements and has called into question the independence of the judiciary casts a shadow on a political order based on liberal democracy and rule of law. Estonia is not about to become another Poland – much less a Hungary, where the rise of right-wing populism has created systemic challenges to the rule of law. Estonia still benefits from significant political pluralism and mainstream parties dominate its political life. Yet frequent hate speech and racist remarks from members of a parliamentary party suggest that the endurance of its democratic order cannot be taken for granted. Nor can the stability of the country’s foreign policy, if its foundation in Western institutions and shared democratic values begins to erode.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.