Local elections 1993-2005

Electoral alliances were dominant for longer in local elections than in parliamentary ones. In the first half of the nineteen-nineties, the big parties disregarded local elections. What is statistically noteworthy is the fact that the smaller parties, unrepresented in the Riigikogu, fielded considerably more candidates and lists for the local elections. For example, in 1993 the Estonian People’s Party came second after the Fatherland Union in terms of lists. In 1996 the greatest number of lists came from the Estonian Pensioners’ and Families’ League, while the Centre Party was only in eighth place, after the Blue Party. Nowadays the situation has changed radically – it is the largest parties that field the biggest electoral lists, those that also wield the greatest power centrally (see Figure 4.3). Parties with lesser influence, on the other hand, decided either not to participate at all or to do so only for individual local councils.

Generally, an analysis of the election statistics and the founding documents of the parties gives reason to claim that local elections are becoming ever more similar to Riigikogu elections, where all the processes (nomination of candidates, competition, creation of coalitions) are conducted through the parties. At the same time the local branches of the parties have considerable autonomy. Although they are supposed to follow the party programme positions and basic documents, the branches retain the right to compile their own plans of action and choose partners for co-operation. The latter factor has created a situation where one and the same party has coalition partners in some local elections, while in others they are pitted against each other. Participation in council elections is very much a matter for the discretion of local organisations.

Nevertheless what should be borne in mind is the extremely great variation as to size, power, and place in local public life of the local governing bodies in Estonia. In the smaller council areas, elections continue to be markedly different from those in the towns, especially the capital. For example, in all council elections, voter participation has been greater in the smaller ones and less in the bigger councils.

The presence of the more powerful parties in local election campaigns has also affected competition. A seat on a local council has become more desirable than it was before. The number of candidates has risen from 8 971 in 1993 to 14 656 in 2005, which means that 4.7 candidates are standing for each seat. As councils expand, the competition tightens, and the parties see a need to form longer lists in the bigger towns. For instance, in Tartu 8 candidates stood for one seat, and in Tallinn 16 candidates. In terms of numbers of lists, local councils continue to show great variation. For example, among the smaller councils there are even those where the choice is between only 2 lists, as well as those where 3-4 parties plus 2-3 citizens’ electoral alliances are standing.

A turning-point in the balance of power in civic electoral alliances and parties came with the proposal in 2002 for an amendment to local council elections, which forbade the creation of civic electoral alliances in local elections. After a protest by the Chancellor of Justice the law remained unchanged, but it had already had an effect (see Fig. 4.4). Consequently, the number of civic electoral lists fell sharply compared with the previous elections in 2002. Whereas on previous occasions the number of civic lists was 2-7 times greater than that of party lists, in 2002 the opposite situation arose – the number of party lists was more than two and a half times greater. However the trend stabilised for the 2005 election, and 186 electoral alliances took part in the elections, making up 20% of all lists. In the view of the politicians, about half of these are really independent local civic initiatives, while the other half consists of candidates with their own party backgrounds. There are various reasons for the existence and continuation of the electoral leagues. Firstly, some local party organisations are so small that they would not be capable of putting together their own electoral lists. Secondly, establishing a party in Estonia is legally complex (for example, it needs to have a minimum of 1000 members), for which reason a civic electoral alliance may be a good alternative. Thirdly, as in other democratic countries, in Estonia the parties are not popular in the public eye; according to opinion polls about a fifth of the population believes in parties, an indicator about twice as low as for other institutions of power. Thus for the same person an electoral alliance may have a bigger chance of gathering votes than a party list. The existence and distribution of electoral alliances is not directly connected to the size of local councils. It is not possible to say that the council elections are between individuals and civic electoral alliances, but between parties in the towns. For example, in the 2005 local elections in Estonia’s fourth largest town, Kohtla-Järve, only 2 electoral alliances presented their own lists. Yet for Maidla council, in the same county of Ida-Viru, 4 parties were standing, and not a single electoral alliance.

Participation by independent candidates has declined considerably more than the civic electoral alliances. In the 1993 local elections they made up 9% of all candidates nominated, but by 2005 their share had declined to 0.5%.

The electorate’s support for the parties has stabilised in the past five or six years, one proof of which is the similar proportion of votes in both parliamentary and local elections. The parties which were popular I the October 2002 local council elections gathered the most votes in the Riigikogu elections held four months later too (Fig. 2 [sic]). Thus in Estonia one cannot speak of fluidity in the electorate’s voting, one indicator of which is differing popularity for a party in general and local elections. Nor have public opinion polls picked up any sudden changes in the people’s preferences; the support percentages are stable, apart from the defections arising from the arrival of Res Publica on the scene.

As with the patterns of candidacy, so with the share of support for the parties there is great regional variation. In the agricultural counties of central Estonia (Jõgevamaa, Tartumaa) the People’s Union enjoys a clear leading role. In Eastern and Western Virumaa the Centre Party is traditionally more popular than the other parliamentary parties. Tartu is known as a stronghold of the Reform Party. In the majority of counties, however, there is fairly uniform support for the parliamentary parties, with about 5% variation in support. Regardless of the individual fluctuations, the three leaders among the most popular parties remained the same in the last two local elections in 2002 and 2005, which in turns confirms the stabilisation mentioned above.

Consequently, 87% of voter support is divided among the four most popular parties for the seats on all the councils (fig. 4.5 [sic]). In 2005 the People’s Union of Estonia increased its share even further in comparison with previous elections; on the other hand the share of council seats held by the parties outside parliament dropped from 1.3% to 0.6%. Therefore there is a concentration of power among the parties in the Riigikogu even at the local level.

As a kind of counterbalance to the “partification” there is flourishing competition between the local electoral alliances. Even though the number of electoral alliances has somewhat declined, the number of mandates in the possession of representatives of electoral alliances has not appreciably diminished. Even in 2005, nearly a third of all seats on local councils belonged to local electoral alliances.

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