April 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

EstoniaWho lives there?: Slightly more than a million people. The Estonian population peaked at about 1.6 million in 1990 but since then a mass movement of ethnic Russians back to Russia, and other factors, has reduced the population by nearly a fifth.

Estonia is officially the least religious country in the world with up to 75% of the population professing no religion. The two largest religions are evangelical Lutheranism and Eastern Orthadoxy (the latter almost exclusively practised by ethnic Russians). There is also a colony of Russian Old Believers (those who reject the 1662 reforms to the Orthadox church).

Ethnic Russians used to make up a substantial part of the Estonian population, but migration means that now only around 8% of the population are Russian (according to some estimates, according to others it is still around 25%). Estonian, a non Indo-European language related to Finnish and not much else (whilst there is a lively debate on the subject, linguists I’ve spoken to say it is only related to Hungarian the way English is related to Hindi), is the only official language and is spoken by almost everybody. However most people over the age of 40 speak very good Russian as it was the day-to-day language in Soviet times. In addition Russian is spoken by the Russian minorities who are concentrated in the capital Tallinn and in Ida-Viru in the far east. The region of Noarootsi in the far western mainland is officially bilingual: Swedish and Estonian being spoken equally.

In the south about 75,000 people speak Seto and Võro. Opinions differ as to whether these are different languages to each other and to Estonian, or merely dialects; but they are fairly distinct.

How does the system work? (the theory): Estonia does a good number in weird election laws. The President is the head of state but otherwise has only nominal powers. The President is elected indirectly for five year terms with a two term limit. The President is elected by Parliament and needs the votes of two thirds of members to be elected.

If this is not achieved within three rounds then the election is taken out of Parliament and presented to an electoral college consisting of all the members of parliament and a number of representatives of local government. These representatives must be local councillors and are indirectly elected by their co-councillors (by PR). Councils representing areas with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants get to elect one representative from amongst their number, 10,000 to 50,000 two, 50,000 to 100,000 four, and over 100,000 ten. In other words the assembly contains 101 parliamentarians and roughly 120 local councillors – the exact number varying according to population. The electoral college – the electors assembly – must select between the two leading candidates in round three, and a straightforward plurality is enough to win.

Real power is concentrated in Parliament who selects the Prime Minister: the executive head. Parliament is elected every four years or whenever the PM cannot command a majority. 101 members are elected by a modified form of D’hondt PR. Estonia is divided into districts with between 6 and 11 members. Lists at this stage are open and any candidate who meets the Hare quota at this stage is automatically elected. Then the votes are pooled nationally and further seats are allocated by D’Hondt to ensure proportionality. The national lists are closed and there is a 5% threshold for candidates elected at the national stage. The d’Hondt formula also is slightly different – the value of each existing seat is raised to the power of 0.9 for the purposes of the formula. This is to give a slight artificial advantage to larger parties.

Estonia is the only country in the world to allow online voting. The terrifyingly powerful biometric Estonian Identity card (which also acts as a payment mechanism and the only means by which almost all services can be accessed) acts as a secure login to a website where one can cast ones vote in the week running up to polling day. 15% of people vote in this way.

Estonia is divided into 15 counties each of which has a governor appointed by the centre. Counties are divided into municipalities which elect their own councils; the government mandates the minimum size of the council and that they be elected by PR. Apart from that they let municipalities go their own way.

How does the system work? (the practice): Estonia is a model and free democracy in many respects. Some organisations place it in the top ten in the world for press freedom and general liberty. The State of World Liberty Index places it at number one but this is a controversial index which takes economic liberty into account and defines it in a very right wing way. Thus high marginal rates of tax and a big state mark you down heavily whilst Estonia scores highly for having a flat-tax and virtually no welfare provision.

The Estonian bureaucracy certainly is small – and in some respects paralysingly so. There are only 4,500 bureaucrats in local government anywhere in the country with the effect that local government is rendered almost entirely powerless.

How did we get here?: The history is complicated and very interesting but not hugely relevant. As good a way of starting as any other is to consider that Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians were all distinct, but not very different, people living in the Baltic area each of whom had their own Duchys at various points in history. They then developed more distinct identities largely due to the German and Protestant influences on Latvia and the Polish and Catholic influences on Lithuania. However of course it wasn’t quite as clear cut as that, and everyone who passed though left some sort of impression on everyone else.

And virtually everyone passed though at some stage: Estonia was at times a principality of the Danish, Teutonic, Polish, Swedish and Russian empires as well as being part of the Hanseatic League of Baltic city states and the territory of Terra Marina and latterly Livonia (a Catholic territory created by a military order called the “Livonian brotherhood of the sword” and various later crusades). Lake Peipsi was the scene of the famous Battle of the Ice between Alexander Nevsky’s Russians and the Teutonic knights.

Estonia was latterly part of the Russian Empire but declared independence in 1918, taking advantage of the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution and World War One. After a two year war of independence it was allowed to obtain for twenty or so years before being invaded by all and sundry during World War Two. After that Estonia was an SSR of the USSR: nominally an independent country but effectively a suzerain to the Russian hegemon.

When the Soviet Union collapsed Estonia received independence and immediately set about liberalising its economy. A series of centre right and centrist liberal parties dominated the political scene and do to this day. Wikipedia has a good diagram of who was in coalition with who and when, but basically Estonia has experienced two decades of rule by four or five centre to centre-right liberal parties in various combinations. The centre-left peaked in popularity around 2004 with 40% of the vote in a Euro election but apart from that have never really made much of an impression, especially in General Elections – 15% is more in their usual range.

The result is that Estonia went down a very very free market, very very liberal road which, like Ireland, worked really really well for them until it blew up in their faces about a year ago.

Who’s in charge?: World elections has a good piece on the last elections and what the various political parties stand for. The short version is that the centre-right liberal Reform party increased its share of the seats up to 33 which gives them the option of either maintaining their current coalition with the liberal-ish right wing IRL (23 seats) or switching to an alliance with the centre-left SDE who achieved their best result in a parliamentary election (19 seats). The SDE were in the coalition too until they walked out two years ago leaving Reform one short of a majority for the last part of their term. The rest of the seats (29) went to the liberal centrist Centre Party, with the rest of the parties getting squeezed out (Estonia had a reasonably sized slightly right-wing agrarian green movement at one point). Either way it is likely that Reform leader Andrus Ansip will remain as PM, as he has since 2005.

estonia political parties Reform Centre SDE IRL

The President meanwhile is Toomas Hendrik Ilves. A former SDE man turned non-partisan for the purpose of becoming president, it was Ilves who led the SDE to their historic high in 2004. He had spent almost his entire life outside Estonia: having been born in Sweden to Estonian refugees and then growing up and going to university in the USA, before working as a diplomat in the USA and Canada. He was a popular choice and was nominated for the 2006 Presidential elections not just by his own SDE, but also by Reform and IRL. The Centre Party and some minor parties who had seats at the time boycotted the poll (which was unopposed) but even so it was thought that, with 65 seats in Parliament shared between the SDE, IRL and Reform, he should win in the first round. However in three consecutive rounds he received only 64 votes, and to this day it is not known who it was that voted against him. It was immaterial in any case as, in a fourth round electoral college vote, he got 174 votes and so won.

What does it look like?: The border with Russia is still not defined and is a bone of some contention. However it certainly runs along Lake Peipsi which is one of Europe’s largest lakes in summer and one of Europe’s largest ice rinks in winter. Estonia has thousands of lakes and islands and is very green and fertile during the summer. It is covered in a thick layer of snow for about four months a year.

Estonia coastal landscape

What are the issues?: They are very low tax, low spend and most people seem to be happy with that. Estonia is dominated by parties that are both socially and economically liberal. Confidence in this idea took a little bit of  a knock after the economy was utterly crippled in 2007-2009 as a direct result of these policies but, as the economy recovered quickly, it didn’t deal these parties an unrecoverable blow. Indeed whilst the SDE are riding at an all time high, 82 of the 101 seats still went to the three largest parties, all three of which are centre right liberal.

The main challenge however is that, whist the economy may be recovering, jobs that were lost have not been replaced and unemployment is estimated at 10-15% which, for Estonia, is very very high.

A good source of impartial information is: There are numerous news sources. The state broadcaster, ERR, is well regarded and has an English language service.

A good book is: There’s some quite good travel writing about Estonia.Estonia and My Estonia: Passport Forgery, Meat Jelly Eaters, and Other Stories are both quite intimate portraits of Estonia which are good on detail but limited in scope.

This is a good general guide The Baltic Nations and Europe: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the Twentieth Century. Dull but worthy books include The Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Nation-Building and Minority Politics in Post-Socialist States: Interests, Influence and Identities in Estonia and Latvia (the front cover is a masterpiece of design), and Constructing Post-Soviet Geopolitics in Estonia (the front cover is crap).

When are the next elections?: Presidential elections should be held in August – Parliament is next up in 2015.


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