Estonia's far-right EKRE party should not be written off

Estonia's far-right EKRE party should not be written off
Martin Helme, leader of EKRE: "If national parties get into the government, we can stop impoverishment and degeneration." / bne IntelliNews
By Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius March 3, 2023

Estonia’s radical right-wing Conservative People's Party (EKRE) is catching up with the ruling liberal Reform Party, with just hours to go before the general election on Sunday.

“It is possible that it will be EKRE that will take on forming a new ruling coalition – along with Isamaa and Centre. The newest poll results suggest that [outcome] stronger than ever before,” Kristiina Tonnisson, head of the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies in Tartu, told bne IntelliNews.

A populist Eurosceptic EKRE-led government would shatter the Baltic country’s image as a progressive liberal output in Eastern Europe. It would also be a rude shock to Estonia’s Western allies, as it could mark a shift in the Baltic country’s strong support for Ukraine under the leadership of Reform Party leader and premier Kaja Kallas.

Martin Helme’s EKRE is the strongest radical right-wing party in the three Baltic states and has close affinities with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s authoritarian Fidesz Party. In the European Parliament it sits in the Identity and Democracy political group with France’s National Rally, Germany’s AFD and Italy’s Lega.

"If the globalist bloc the Reform Party, Estonia 200, socialists will continue to whistle at the Estonian constitution, the birth rate of the Estonian people will decrease, the influx of immigrants, the extinction of the domestic economy, the restriction of freedom of speech with hate speech laws, the cancelling of people and the Reform party's arrogant attitude towards ordinary people will continue,” Helme told a press conference in January. “If national parties get into the government, we can stop impoverishment and degeneration. That is why our party's slogan in these elections is ‘Save Estonia!’"

According to the most recent opinion poll by RAIT Faktum & Ariko, EKRE could win 22%, just behind the Reform party on 24%. Reform’s support is well down on the 28-30% it is given in polls by Norstat, Kantar Emor, and Turu-uuringute AS.

This would put EKRE in a strong position to form a coalition with the populist Centre Party, which has 17%, and the right-wing Ismaa on 8%.

EKRE was part of a coalition with Centre and Ismaa after the 2019 general election but then Centre held the prime minister’s post, something that it would probably not hold this time around. That government collapsed in 2021 after the Centre Party was embroiled in a corruption scandal, opening the way for Kallas’ Reform Party to return to power.

If EKRE were to form a government after this weekend’s election, Tonnisson says Estonia would likely tone down its hawkish rhetoric towards Russia and would likely emulate Germany’s position on Ukraine.

“We will definitely not see the avid staunch support [for  Ukraine] we’re seeing now from the Kallas government,” she underlined.

The Centre Party even had a long-term co-operation agreement with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party and only cancelled it just after Moscow’s invasion in February 2022. It was then forced out of the government by Kallas in June, when she said that she needed to form a new coalition to handle the Ukraine crisis.

Raimond Kaljulaid, an unaffiliated Estonian MP, told bne IntelliNews that an EKRE government would likely reduce aid to Ukraine and to its refugees. “I suppose the statement by Mr Helme – ‘We are not for Ukraine, we are not for Russia, we are for peace’ sums it all up,” he says. “The policy they are pursuing is very much like that of Orban’s Hungary: EKRE wants to limit military aid and send refugees back.”

EKRE did not reply to bne IntelliNews’ requests for a comment.

EKRE first won sits at the 2015 general election but its big breakthrough came at the last election, when it won 17.8% of the vote and took 19 seats in the 101-seat parliament. Its support has remained high, boosted by the high cost of living – Estonia has the highest inflation rate in the EU at an average of 19.4% last year. It pledges to continue using the country's polluting oil shale resources to keep energy prices low, and to go slow on the transition to a green economy.

“I see three reasons why EKRE has remained so popular,” says Tonnisson. “I call it an ‘against party’ – it is against everything, against the EU, against political correctness, etc. In a way, they have built their strength of negativity. Secondly, they do throw a really good show locally, reaching out to the local small towns and communities. Third, in their communication, they target what I call ‘an average Estonian’, one not very educated and they tend to talk simply, without a plum in their mouth. That’s why in their language you will never hear the catchy words like ‘innovation’, ‘harmony’, ‘inclusion’, ‘minorities’, etc.”

Nevertheless, most analysts still give Kallas’ Reform party the biggest chance of forming a government.

Tonis Saarts, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at Tallinn University’s School of Governance, Law and Society (SOGOLAS), told bne IntelliNews that Kallas has not been very skilful at managing the country’s COVID-19 and cost of living crises but she has become very popular because of the way she has handled the war in Ukraine.

“It is very probable that the current prime minister will be in the best seat to form a new government, but we have to be ready either for EKRE leader Martin Helme's or Centre leader Juri Ratas’s governments,” he says.

He predicts that a coalition consisting of the Reform Party, Estonia 200 – a relatively new  liberal Estonian party – the Social Democrat party and Ismaa is the most likely. “But such extensive, four-parties coalitions are not common in Estonia,” he notes.

Andrei Korobeinik, member of Centre, told bne IntelliNews that the most probable coalition is between the Centre and Reform parties, but his party could also form a government with EKRE, though it would likely demand the prime minister’s post.

“First of all, those parties need to get 51 (or rather some 55) seats to make it possible, and then the chances for such a coalition are higher if the Centre Party gets more seats than EKRE. Otherwise, EKRE may be heading for the prime minister's seat and that's not what the other two potential partners may swallow,” Korobeinik says.

He also says that EKRE’s record in government in 2019-21 should not scare people.

“With EKRE in coalition for two years, Estonia introduced a digital nomad visa, abolished aliens’ passports for children, the EKRE leader successfully defended Rail Baltica’s financing, although, officially, the party is against the project. Surprisingly, that was probably one of the most liberal governments Estonia had in years,” Korobeinik says.