Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 24
8 March 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
And the Winner Is...

Mel Huang

Estonians went to the polls this weekend in crucial parliamentary elections. There was more drama and excitement than was originally predicted, and the winning party will not be in government as it is unable to form a coalition. ENP brings you the latest results, commentary and analysis from Tallinn.

Hot off the presses... the winner of the Estonian parliamentary elections of 7 March 1999:

Centre Party


Pro Patria Union


Reform Party




Coalition Party


Rural People's Party


United People's Party


(Results are as of 0600 Estonian time on the morning of 8 March)

What happened

The elections proved to be stranger than most expected, with a bit more drama and frustration than predicted. No one doubted that Edgar Savisaar's populist centre-left Centre Party would win the plurality of seats. With strong showings in nearly each of the eleven electoral districts, the populist champions for a progressive income tax will likely get 28 seats in the new Riigikogu.

However, a relatively poor showing by tag-team partner, Arnold Rüütel's Rural Peoples Party, will likely keep Savisaar on the opposition benches. The party dropped below 8 per cent of the votes and ended up with about 7 seats. Also remarkable was the decline of party leader Rüütel, who received significantly fewer votes for a direct mandate than in the previous elections.

On the other side, there was a bit of drama involved in the rise of the centre-right three-party coalition. With poll results coming slowly from urban areas, the three appeared to falter towards the end of the night. It was not until after 0400's results that pushed the Pro Patria Union into second place with 18 seats. This was a mild surprise, as most polls indicated that Pro Patria would be the bottom of the three centre-right parties to form a coalition.

Instead, the liberal Reform Party gained the same 18 seats and the Moderates came in with 17 seats. This would give the three-party group 53 seats in the 101-member parliament. Though the parties noted that 54 or 55 would be a good working majority, this is a majority nevertheless. The press noted that the leaders of the three parties -- Mart Laar (Pro Patria Union), Andres Tarand (Moderates) and Siim Kallas (Reform Party) -- will need to agree on who will gain the prime minister's position. But with Kallas acquitted of corruption charges just last Friday and a looming appeal, there is little chance that the Reform Party boss would be risked as the new prime minister.

One of the biggest surprises was the relative success of the Coalition Party. Days before the elections the party of incumbent Prime Minister Mart Siimann registered a dismal 4 per cent in a survey, which would have pushed the party out of parliament. Instead, with a strong showing in several rural areas, the Coalition Party gained 7 seats. Before the urban count and rise of the centre-right bloc, there was speculation that the Coalition Party would become the kingmaker. Though its role may not be as regal, with the three-party group holding a thin majority, the Coalition Party may yet find itself from the brink of oblivion to participating in the new government. At a post-election press conference, there was talk from both the Coalition Party and the three-party group for possible co-operation.

The largest surprise is certainly the success of the United People's Party. Polled at roughly 2 per cent by nearly every polling firm, the final result was closer to 6 per cent and gave the mostly-Russophone list six seats. The rival Russian Party of Estonia failed to reach even 2 per cent of the vote, resulting in no seats and party leader Nikolai Maspanov screaming discrimination by the Russian-language press for preferring the rival United People's Party. But the strong showing by the United People's Party ensures a Russian faction in the next Riigikogu, relieving some fears of unnecessary rhetoric from Moscow.

What's next

If the results hold from this nearly-final count, then it is likely that President Lennart Meri will ask one of the three parties in the centre-right group to form a government. In the adjoining column it was suggested that President Meri favours Pro Patria Union. With the prosecutors launching an appeal against Reform Party boss Siim Kallas, the president would probably stay away from that controversial choice despite being backed by 20 seats. Most likely the President will go to one of the other two leaders: Moderates leader Andres Tarand or Pro Patria Union leader Mart Laar -- both former prime ministers. The one-seat advantage by Laar's Pro Patria Union, as well as the President's own leanings, will probably see the re-creation of the team that saw Estonia through the dramatic 'shock therapy' years.

Though the Centre Party clearly won the elections, there is little chance that the President will appoint Edgar Savisaar prime minister. On election day, the president took a rare personal attack on Savisaar and his 'ways' with power. Though the Centre Party condemned the verbal attack, they stated at a post-election press conference that they will likely be bypassed by the President. Plus, the president can use the excuse that the centre-right coalition boasts a majority already while the centre-left bloc of Savisaar fails that hurdle.

Final notes

What makes this whole election most surprising was the turnout. The day was spectacular, and many felt it was the first day of spring. From a blizzard less than two weeks prior, the +6 C in Tallinn was met with laughter and pleasure. The streets and parks were inundated with people.

Sadly, it probably kept people away from the polling stations. As of the time of writing the turnout was predicted at a ridiculously low 53 per cent, down more than 15 per cent from the last parliamentary elections. Some blame the weather, but most would suggest voter apathy. Voter turnout was high in the north-east part of Estonia, where many newly naturalised citizens lived. As registers show an increase in the number of voters by about 100,000, the new voters took full advantage of the opportunity to cast their votes. This contributed to the Centre Party's win and the unexpected showing of the United People's Party.

But to many election watchers the turnout is the most disappointing thing. Results can be expected, but when turnout is so dramatically low, it is a sign that the political system has alienated so many within such a short time. How this new government performs will hopefully break this downward trend.

Mel Huang, 8 March 1999

For up-to-date results on the elections, go to either the Electoral Commission (www.vvk.ee) or the Estonian Foreign Ministry (www.vm.ee).


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