Nature of the electoral system and basic trends in voter participation

The proportional representation system applies in Estonia in both Riigikogu and local council elections, which is also the dominant system elsewhere in Europe. The proportional representation system may be seen as the right choice for Estonian society, where the spectrum of political sentiment and orientation is varied and the democratic mechanisms for defending interests have not yet had time to crystallise. The proportional representation system gives rise to a situation where one party is unable to achieve an absolute majority of votes and where on average 4-6 political forces are elected a representative body. However, this system does have its drawbacks. For example, political commentators (such as Rein Taagepera) have repeatedly criticised the Estonian election system for its excessive complexity, which makes the procedure of the distribution of mandates difficult for the voter to understand and thus discourages them from taking part in the vote. For elections to the Rigikogu there is a three-phase cycle of distributing mandates (personal mandate, electoral list mandate, compensation mandate), which implies the transfer of votes between candidates on the same list. As a result of such procedures, candidates for whom a voter has not voted may find themselves elected. Undoubtedly this principle decreases the legitimacy of the deputy and his or her involvement with the electorate in the people’s eyes.

The majority of systems of proportional representation also make use of an electoral threshold, with the aim of avoiding excessive fragmentation in the elected bodies. In Estonia the 5% threshold of votes across the country for Riigikogu elections is quite high, and as a result the smaller parties do not get into parliament. In the 1999 elections to the Riigikogu, 12 parties took part, of whom 7 had seats allocated to them; in 2003, 11 parties took part, and seats were distributed among 6 of them.

Although there is great variation in their share in local elections, here too, each of the 6 parties gained over 5% of all the votes, whereas the support for the 5 smaller parties remained under 1% for each of them.

The principles of the electoral system have a direct effect on the number of parties and pacts between parties. The four elections that took place for the Riigikogu between 1992 and 2002 have indicated clearly that the opportunities for small parties to get into parliament are negligible. As a result of losing an election the small parties either disband or merge with some larger party. In the 1992 Riigikogu election, 38 parties took part; by 2003 the number had been reduced to 11. It is not likely that there will be any further significant reduction.

Voter activity in Estonia follows the trend characteristic of all of the post-Communist region. The first free elections brought 80-90% of voters to the polls, but year by year the percentages have steadily dropped. Among the countries of eastern and central Europe, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic have the lowest level of participation. In general the average participation in Estonia (about 60% is one of the lowest in Europe, about 30% less than in the Scandinavian countries as a whole.

In the second half of the nineteen-nineties the percentages of activity in Riigikogu and local council elections more or less converged, but in the local elections in 2005 it dropped below 50% for the first time. Particularly low was the turn-out for the European Parliament elections, in which Estonia took part for the first tie in 2004. Only 27% of voters went to the polls.

Only citizens of the Republic of Estonia have the right to vote in Riigikogu elections. In local elections this right is also held by locally resident citizens and non-citizens of the European Union (holders of the so-called grey passports).

In the 2005 elections, voting through the Internet was tried for the first time in Estonia. In addition to Internet voting (the term e-voting is generally used) all the former possibilities for voting were retained, including advance voting. Unfortunately the technological innovation was unable to break the declining trend in voter participation – only 1.8% of all participants voted through the Internet, and general participation dropped by 6% compared with 2002.

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