Estonia: Immune to far-right Parties?
Right-wing parties are on the rise in Europe. After assessing the situation in France, a Western European country, it is time to move to Eastern Europe. After the decline of the Soviet Union, right-wing parties were very successful in these newly independent countries. Located in the northeast of Europe, Estonia is a former Soviet republic. Surprisingly, right-wing parties were not very successful there until recently.
In this blog post, I will explain when a success for right-wing parties is expected and apply it to the situation of Estonia. I will analyse the reasons for missing support of right-wing parties in Estonia. Then, I will analyse the case of the Estonian People’s Party (EKRE) and what they did differently from parties before them. My aim is to create an understanding for the case of Estonia, because this can help to understand the rise of right-wing parties in general.
When is a rise of right-wing parties expected?
There are several reasons, that help right-wing parties to become successful. Kasekamp and Auers list five factors, that make a strong right-wing party very likely. Namely:
- When there are structural changes in society
- When there are socio-cultural cleavages
- When globalisation and europeanisation affect the society
- When trust in existing political parties is declining. New actors can enter the stage
- When existing political parties cooperate with right-wing parties or use their rhetoric-> movement and ideas become legitimised
When applying these factors on Estonia, we can see that all them are met. After the collapse of the USSR, Estonia suffered an enormous economic collapse. Due to migration from Russia, the percentage of native Estonians was shrinking from over 90% after WWII to only 60% in the 1980s. Besides, many saw the accession of EU and NATO only as replacing one regime with another one and were sceptic towards the EU. Trust in political institutions and politicians has been low for a very long time.
So, why was there no successful right-wing party?
Some scholars see the reasons for missing electoral support of right-wing parties in the Estonian party system. By increasing the number of signatures to establish a political party to 1000 and also a threshold of 5% to join the parliament, already some hurdles were established. 1000 signatures seems not like a very high number, but considering that only 1,3 Million people live in Estonia, it is already quite a lot.
Another explanation is, that political parties are not important in Estonia. People do not vote according to political parties. Parties adopt positions not along party lines but by considering which one will give them the best turnouts. Even democratic parties are free to adopt extremist positions. As already discussed by Leire, in France, mainstream parties adopted ideas from the right spectrum which normalised extremist positions. This resulted in a success for parties like the Rassemblement National. In Estonia, it was the opposite. Right-wing parties were never really successful because extremist positions are part of the mainstream opinion. Therefore, people did not need to vote for right-wing parties, because these parties had no unique selling point.
While many scholars analyse the different arguments separately, I think it is the mixture of the Estonian party system, the fact that political parties are not very important and extremist opinions that are widely spread in the mainstream, that resulted in weak right-wing parties.
What changed with the rise of EKRE? How did they become so successful?
EKRE (Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond) is the Estonian People’s Party and was established in 2012. Currently, they are one of the strongest political forces in Estonia.
Due to limited research and their recent rise, there is no final answer to explain the success of EKRE. One approach is, that with Mart Helme (and now his son Martin) there is a charismatic leader, which right-wing parties before were missing. Others argue that EKRE successfully embedded the narrative of a ‘new colonization’ into the discourse of the ‘refugee crisis’. Many people consider the soviet period of Estonia as colonization and are scared, that this might happen again. EKRE used this fear to gather public support.
Crises have been an important boost for right-wing parties. Ernesto Laclau argues, that people act politically based on what they think is the truth rather than on actual facts. So, even when the ‘refugee crisis’ did not hit Estonia, EKRE successfully convinced people, that is Estonia very affected. To me, this is a very convincing argument. EKRE could be so successful because unlike previous right-wing parties, they played with the fear of the population. They used the past of Estonia and connected it to the present and possible future crises.
Estonia is a remarkably special case. Against all expectations there was no strong right-wing until EKRE. With the ‘refugee crisis’ EKRE successfully convinced people of the ‘colonization’ of Estonia which stoked public fear. In order to fully understand why EKRE could rise so fast, more research needs to be done. However, I think that the example of Estonia gives hope for the future. Even when the factors point in the direction of a strong right wing, the theory does not necessarily hold true.