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Ethnic party formation in Estonia

The Estonian Centre Party (Eesti Keskerakond)

The OSCE/ODIHR has just released its assessment of February’s Riigikogu elections. The report devotes considerable discussion to Estonia’s internet voting system, which I’ve previously talked about. Also in the report is a discussion of the state of minority Russians in Estonia. Although technically twenty-six percent of the population, Russians are underrepresented in politial life. In fact, only ten percent of the previous parliaments’ MPs belonged to any minority at all. Furthermore, strict citizenship laws that requre Estonian lanaguage skills mean a large portion of Russians are not even allowed to vote.

Political parties made varying degrees of effort to include persons belonging to national minorities on their candidate lists and to reach out to Russian-speaking voters. One party that explicitly identified itself along ethnic lines did not meet the five per cent threshold. Estonia’s public broadcaster aired some election debates in Russian on TV and radio, while political parties and some individual candidates issued campaign materials in both Estonian and Russian. Issues related to national minorities did not feature prominently in the campaign.

Prior to the elections, the Estonian Cooperation Assembly/Roundtable of Nationalities, a network of civil society organizations, issued an appeal to election contestants and the public to take a more constructive approach to Estonia’s ethnic and linguistic diversity.

Estonia’s party system has been extremely unstable since its independence. Russians initially formed ethnic parties such as the Estonian United People’s Party and managed to gain some representation in parliament.   In the last decade, however, ethnic Russian voters started to move their support to non-ethnic, mainstream parties such as the Centre Party and Reform Party.  While the latter two haven’t made their platforms extremely Russian friendly – Reform favors stricter citizenship laws than exist now – they have both included significantly more ethnic Russians on their party lists.  It’s interesting that mainstream elites have wanted, and been able, to recruit ethnic Russians into their parties.  I’m guessing – although open to being corrected – that poor organization and performance of the ethnic parties allowed this to happen.  It probably also doesn’t hurt that there are so many ethnic Russians in the country (lots of votes!).  It’s my general observation that once ethnic parties become institutionalized, it’s rare for their voters to move to a different party.  Estonia might provide a great research design for anybody looking at the impact of strong ethnic parties as the country now has a time series change regarding their salience.

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