E-Votes for the Far Right

The far-right EKRE party tripled its vote in this month’s Estonian elections. It could soon be in coalition government — and Estonia might start looking like Viktor Orbán's Hungary.

EKRE leader Mart Helme in 2008. Wikimedia Commons

If anything about Estonia is known internationally, it is probably the country’s e-voting system, which allows citizens to participate in elections online using a smart card reader. It is also known for establishing the system of e-residency, which provides foreign entrepreneurs with a digital identity to register an EU-based company.

With such technical innovations, this land of 1.3 million people has portrayed itself as the most progressive and liberal among the post-Soviet countries. But at this month’s parliamentary elections, a significant share of Estonia’s citizens logged on to vote for the most chauvinist party running — the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond, EKRE).

Indeed, when the results came in on March 3, EKRE was the symbolic “winner,” securing a rise unparalleled in scale anywhere in Europe. Nearly tripling its representation, the far-right party received 18 percent of the vote. Its advance contrasted with the flatlining scores for the other parties eligible for the new parliament — The Reform Party, The Center Party, and Pro Patria — all of whose results remained within 2 percent of their scores in the 2015 contest.

This contrasted with the setback for the center-left: the Social Democrats’ support dropped by a third and it became the smallest force in parliament, with 10 of 101 seats. Economically or socially right-wing parties (the victorious right-wing liberal Reform; the moderate conservative Pro Patria; and the radical conservative EKRE) together fill two-thirds of the parliamentary benches. In the previous government, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas’s Center Party had relied on a coalition with the smaller Social Democrats and Pro Patria.

In his victory speech, EKRE’s leader, Mart Helme, celebrated his success “doing a Trump” in Estonia. Yet the question is whether the far right’s triumph is also a step towards making the Baltic country the next Hungary or Poland — not just expressing autocratic impulses but beginning to dismantle the institutional and civil-society barriers to them.

EKRE: “For Estonia!”

EKRE’s nationalist discourse is built on radical anti-immigration rhetoric. Helme made clear that his desire to compare himself to Trump especially centers on the idea of independent border controls. His party, like nationalist forces on the rise around Europe (and beyond), bases itself on both opposition to international immigration and framing migration as a security threat. EKRE members’ comments are often colored by explicit racism. One member of parliament, Martin Helme (who is also the son of the party’s leader), summed up this attitude as, “If you’re black, go back.”

EKRE was established in its current form in 2012, pledging loyalty to the Estonian nation and its traditions and values, as against the existing “ultra-liberal” parties. It has hijacked a number of Estonian national symbols, including the cornflower, as the party’s logo and the blue-black-white trio of the national flag as its identifying colors.

In its core statements for the elections, the party emphasized “traditional family values” by promising to establish a constitutional definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman and to withdraw the gender-neutral Civil Partnership Act. This latter — currently the only legal means for same-sex couples to document their partnership — took effect in 2016. As for immigration, the party proposes to deport residents who have been granted asylum or protection by the state (even though at the end of 2017, this number stood at just 445).

Some of the points in EKRE’s program bear a striking resemblance to those recently implemented in Hungary under the far-right Fidesz government. While EKRE has not publicly admitted imitating Hungary’s policies, it has sent a letter in support of Viktor Orbán’s government, and received a thank-you note in return, signed by Hungary’s foreign minister. For example, the support to young families invoked in EKRE’s program would be realized by reducing parents’ income tax by one-quarter per child, leaving the parents of four or more children with no obligation to pay this tax at all.

An identical policy was recently introduced by Orbán to support Hungarian families having more children, which was framed as a “remedy against immigration.” Hungary has also established a new system of administrative courts, which contradicts the principle of the separation of powers, e.g. allowing the minister of justice to have direct control over the appointment of judges. EKRE would like to follow suit: it has proposed creating further state control over the judicial system, allowing parliament to exercise power over courts and the public prosecutor.

In addition to these evident comparisons with the Fidesz regime in Hungary, EKRE’s program has clear far-right traits: migrants and naturalized citizens will be deported, abortions will be excluded from public health care services, and information channels that publish or broadcast “anti-Estonian propaganda” will be closed down. In the local media, party members have made explicit their discontent with leftist cultural publications, insisting that state funding should be cut from several cultural monthlies and a theater, which it deems non-compliant with conservative nationalist values.

Moreover, the party’s youth group leader is known to have publicly praised Hitler. This has brought him a ban from local bars, but not from the Estonian Parliament.

Nationalist Triumph

The rise of EKRE marks a setback for the more established national-conservative party in parliament, Pro Patria. Unlike EKRE, which tends to oppose EU policies in their rhetoric, the somewhat more liberal Pro Patria’s 2019 program portrayed Estonia as part of a wider “Western culture.” Nevertheless, this party also stands for “family values,” for education only in Estonian (rather than including the choice of the minority Russian language), and greater investment in the military. In this year’s elections, its support fell by 2.3 percent, most likely due to the strong campaigning by EKRE.

Combined with EKRE’s MPs, national-conservatives hold one-third of all seats. However, EKRE’s rise also marks a radicalization. As author and public intellectual Rein Raud put it: “The historical mission of Pro Patria throughout the time of independence [since 1991] was to keep the real Nazis in the closet. They have failed.”

EKRE’s campaign struck a chord for voters leaning towards the conservative right, gaining votes from Pro Patria, but also all of the parties except, perhaps, the Social Democrats (a force allied to the UK Labour Party in the European Parliament). EKRE voters are notably young (the most popular among eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds), male, ethnic Estonian (as opposed to residents of Russian descent), with secondary education, and mostly from rural areas in South and West Estonia.

Its propaganda emotionally invoked the “national awakening” of the era of independence at the turn of the 1990s. For example, on Independence Day on February 24, EKRE marched through Tallinn Old Town with thousands of supporters, carrying torches and singing national songs. Its appeal to young male voters draws on its performative machismo — including on social media, where members of the EKRE youth group Blue Awakening have confessed to trolling progressive groups under false identities.

At the same time, it seems to have grown from a feeling of abandonment among citizens, particularly in rural areas, who have seen the state prospering while they have remained in relative stagnation. EKRE provides these latter a narrative of empowerment based on nationality.

A narrative of victimization is widespread in the statements of EKRE leaders, for whom “the Estonian nation” is a homogenous group that has been suppressed by overly pro-European politicians. EKRE poses itself as the defender of the will of “the majority of the people.” In fact, in Estonia’s 2003 referendum on European Union membership, nearly two-thirds of the population backed joining, and recently this level of support has ranged even higher. The vote took place twelve years after independence from the Soviet Union, but in the “No” campaign anti-EU arguments overlapped with anticommunist talking points regarding leftist redistribution policies, pacifism, cosmopolitanism, and multiculturalism.

EKRE’s counter-argument to evidence of popular pro-Europeanism is that this European Union is not the one the people voted for joining sixteen years ago, now that it is supposedly forcing its overly liberal immigration policies and LGBT rights on Estonia. EKRE regards the European Union as one of the enemies of the autonomous nation state that it is fighting for. It is no exaggeration to speak of “enemies” and “fighting”: the party members’ statements give an impression that an external force is immediately threatening not only citizens’ safety, but the nation’s very existence.

This sort of paranoia is not new to Estonian society. A certain fear of war has endured ever since the declaration of independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. Bordering with Russia, the state can perhaps never really shake off the lingering feeling of “something might happen.” This fear is apparent in EKRE’s program, which demands a billion dollars in US investment to support the development of the Estonian military.

Implications of the Soviet Past

The lingering fear has taken a clearly anticommunist form. This is not surprising for a small country that has gone through the trauma of several invasions and five decades of Soviet occupation. While the experience of living in the Soviet Union was complicated and controversial, there is today a growing trend to exploit the memory of Soviet occupation to nationalist ends. EKRE, but also some local conservative journalists, have compared the migration policies coming from Brussels to the unchallengeable decrees that used to come from Moscow.

This anticommunism plays into the hands of both the nationalists and the neoliberals. In Estonia, and in the Central-Eastern European region generally, the terms kommunist and neomarksist are often used to attack those articulating criticism of capitalism and economic inequality. Those in favor of the current progressive income tax have been compared with those who once seized the kulaks’ property and livestock in Stalin-era Soviet Union. This helps galvanize the base of free-market center-right forces like the Reform Party, as do measures taken by such parties that aid the upper middle class.

It is difficult to promote leftist politics in a society that has become disillusioned with the idea of socialism. Yet on the other side of the political divide, the ghost of communism is often resurrected as a means of advancing the free market.

One recent example of how international migration policies have been criticized through the lens of “totalitarianism” was the public debate around the Marrakech migration pact negotiated at the United Nations. The pact intends to ensure member states’ collaboration in ensuring safe legal migration — i.e. not regarding asylum seekers or war migrants — and is not legally binding. In late 2018, EKRE collected ten thousand signatures for a petition against Estonia joining the pact, and organized a protest in front of the Estonian Parliament as negotiations went on inside the building. In its interpretation, the “globalist” agreement would be fatal to Estonian sovereignty.

Similar sentiments were voiced by politicians of other parties further to the right, who claimed that the spirit of such a pact tallies with “the everyday practices of totalitarian regimes.” However, the agreement was accepted by the outgoing parliament in late 2018.

Fragmented Votes

The election results this month showed the fragmentation typical of Estonian politics. Several smaller parties did not reach the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament, including the newly formed technocratic Estonia 200, the Green Party, and the Free Party, a nationalist conservative party less radical than EKRE, which lost all of its eight seats.

Already in 2015 around a tenth of the vote went to parties too small to secure representation, though the new parliament will be formed by five parties instead of the previous six. Some of the votes cast for Estonia 200 (4.4 percent) may have come from former supporters of the Social Democrats, whose seat numbers fell from fifteen to ten. The party may now lose its place in the governmental coalition.

One policy that may have cost the Social Democratic Party votes was the rise in the alcohol excise duty in 2017, which the party supported. Whereas public health research shows a correlation between higher taxes on alcohol sales and fewer intoxication-related accidents, the excise reform was highly unpopular and fed public discontent. Moreover, the reform induced a decrease in alcohol tax revenues, since many residents started driving to Latvia for cheaper alcohol. Nearly a third of income meant to originate from the excise never reached the state’s budget.

At the same time, the Social Democrats’ loss of face appears to reflect voters’ general dissatisfaction with the party’s turn toward social liberalism and away from acknowledging the country’s social inequalities. The party’s 2019 campaign “Each person counts!” emphasized individualism, rather than, for example, expressing its concern for the country’s economic inequalities. It is increasingly perceived as an elitist party suiting the young and successful living in central Tallinn, the country’s capital. The party is supported more by young (twenty-five to thirty-four) female voters with higher education, and less by older, less educated voters and the Russian population.

There was also low turnout in regions usually dominated by the Center Party, one of the most popular forces since its inception in 1991, particularly among the local ethnic Russians and citizens with lower incomes. Beyond the party’s fragmentation, its base may also be changing due to the resignation of its charismatic yet corrupt longtime leader, Edgar Savisaar. Indeed, the rise of its new leader (and current prime minister) Jüri Ratas has produced a change in the Center Party’s public image, liable to sow skepticism among previously loyal voters.

Traditionally, the Center has been the most popular party among non-Estonian voters. During Savisaar’s leadership (almost uninterrupted from 1991 to 2016), the party’s narrative aimed at its Russian electorate addressed them as victims of the rough years of the 1990s independence era, and pitched the party as on a mission to seek justice for them. Since 2016, the party has, however, changed its rhetoric, presenting the Russian minority as on the same footing as Estonians with regard to the job market, politics, and education, and promising to liberalize citizenship policies. In any case, Russian voters showed their relative passivity during these elections, which seemingly cost the Center Party a few seats in the parliament.

A Moment for Liberal Feminism

Even with reactionary and patriarchal forces on the rise, history was made in terms of female representation in parliament. Indeed, Kaja Kallas, the head of the center-right Reform Party, might become the country’s first female prime minister. If the Reform Party manages to form a coalition, Kallas would join Estonia’s first female president, Kersti Kaljulaid, in leading the country. On top of that, the highest-ever number of women — 27 out of 101 MPs — were elected to parliament, with the Social Democrats being the first party in Estonia’s history to send more women to parliament than men.

However, as one Estonian saying puts it, “don’t cheer before the day is done.” The Reform Party — founded by Kaja Kallas’s father, Siim Kallas, is a center-right and neoliberal party. It has been one of the most popular parties since being founded in 1994, particularly in the country’s second major city, Tartu, and in counties surrounding Tallinn. The party’s program is oriented toward individual economic success and the free market, with a hands-off approach toward regulation.

One of its principles in post-election coalition negotiations is to undo the current progressive income-tax system, introduced by the previous center-left administration. Emphasizing entrepreneurship and the need for foreign investment, the Reform Party aligns well with Estonia’s current international image — but not with the one-fifth of the population living below the relative poverty line.

Coalition Talks

A government is expected to be formed by the end of March. The center-right Reform Party has ruled out EKRE as a coalition partner, and the Center Party has declined any pact given Reform’s plan to bring back the flat-tax system.

The coalition talks were at first discussed between Reform, the Social Democrats, and Pro Patria, but were quickly overrun by the Center Party inviting EKRE and Pro Patria to negotiations, creating the possibility of a far-right element in the government. This has created a backlash and raised questions about the trustworthiness of Jüri Ratas, who a few months earlier had insisted that he would not collaborate with the racist EKRE, whose animosity also targets local Russians. Ratas has been criticized for seeking to remain the prime minister by any means necessary, and for betraying the Russian electorate, which makes up around 70 percent of the Center Party’s voters. However, this could also divide the Center Party, with the Russian MPs boycotting EKRE’s reforms.

Despite the current far-right scare, there are some constraints on Estonia becoming another Hungary or Poland. The electoral system allows for a parliament with five or six parties, and the fact that two parties with the highest results represent no more than two-thirds of seats rules out the possibility of a single party dominating the government. Secondly, Estonian politicians can only go so far with their criticism of the EU or rhetoric about leaving, given the ever-present fear of — and possible threat coming from — Russia. Thirdly, there is still a high level of media freedom, and though the right-populist parties do have their propaganda channels, they do not own any of the main broadcasting channels yet. Finally, one can hope that the local non-Estonian minority, representing nearly 30 percent of the population, will never vote for a party with an exclusivist definition of the Estonian nation.

What is more likely, and harder to detect, is a surreptitious change within the wider political discourse. EKRE has taken the liberty of using foul rhetoric, making explicitly racist claims, and attacking the systems that have maintained the country’s stability since independence. With the party’s success, this language could gradually become normalized, especially if the economic hardship of left-behind Estonians allows them to be seduced by radical nationalism.