Estonian Center-Right Forms Government as Nationalist Vote Triples

Estonia’s opposition center-right Reform party ran on a low-tax, small-government platform and beat out the governing center-left Centre party, led by Prime Minister Juri Ratas, in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. The Eurosceptic Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE), which is against the illegal mass migration faced by western Europe, more than doubled its seat count in parliament with 17.8 percent of the vote, becoming the third largest political force in the country. Centre received 23.1 percent.

Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas is the country's first female Prime Minister after her party finished with 28.8 percent of the vote, giving it 34 seats. She is a 41-year-old lawyer and former European Parliament member who became Reform’s leader less than a year ago. The party’s founders include her father, Siim Kallas, a former Estonian Prime Minister and EU commissioner.

PM Kallas’ government is holding talks with the conservative Fatherland Party and the Social Democrats, which won 12 and 10 seats in the election respectively, on a new Cabinet. Together, the three parties, which formed a coalition in 2015-2017, would have 56 seats in the 101-seat-parliament. The Reform party's move follows the Centre party's rejection of an overture from PM Kallas because of disagreements over tax reform plans. Reform said before the election it would not consider EKRE as a potential governing coalition partner.

EKRE’s success could lead to a coalition of Estonia’s main rivals, Ratas’ traditionally pro-Russian Centre and pro-Western Reform, which have not governed together since 2003. Estonia enjoys strong economic growth and low unemployment, but regional differences in the country of just 1.3 million people are vast. EKRE’s heartland consists of the counties farthest from the capital, Tallinn, areas where its promise to shake up politics resonated with many voters. A fiercely anti-migrant message lifted its support during the European migration crisis in 2015 and it has held on to the gains since then.

EKRE also promised to cut income and excise taxes, where Reform and Centre support the continuation of austerity policies, which despite leaving Estonia with the lowest debt level in any Eurozone country, have also created anger among the rural population who feel left behind by these measures.

EKRE was formed in 2012 through a merger of an agrarian and a populist party. It defines its platform as nationalist-conservative and its goal is to protect the benefits of ethnic Estonians. Martin Helme, who runs EKRE with his father and leads its parliament caucus, has said publicly that only white immigrants should be allowed into Estonia. On election night, Helme said the party's growing popularity was "no different than almost all other countries in Europe, where there's a serious public demand for political parties who will stand up against the globalist agenda" and EU policymakers. He said the "biggest achievement" the vote count reflects is "we are dictating the Estonian political agenda."

Increasingly, over the past several years and accelerating in recent months, political parties with nationalist agendas has grown in Europe, which has seen an estimated 15 million migrants enter the EU within the past decade. In some countries, such as Italy, nationalism surged after large influxes of illegal migrants from the Middle East and Africa landed on their shores. In countries like Poland and Estonia, this has been a source of anxiety even though the number of arriving migrants has been smaller, from a position of preventative measures.

Estonia is a former Soviet republic with 1.3 million people and its population declines each year due to low birth rates and emigration to richer Western countries. Ethnic Estonians make up 70 percent of the population, or around 900,000 people. In explaining his party's success in the election, Mr. Helme, 42, said its message promoting traditional values has appeal to voters when demographic changes are causing worries. "Emigration is a big thing in Estonia," he said. "The replacement of the population in Estonia. Estonians are leaving and others coming in. These are big issues. Compared to those issues, tax issues are just meaningless." The party leads an annual torch-lit Independence Day march through Tallinn's Old Town. During the February event, hundreds of participants shout the party's slogan "For Estonia!" Mr. Helme's father, party chairman Mart Helme, is a former diplomat and a historian specializing in ancient Estonian civilization.

Martin Molder, a political scientist at Estonia's University of Tartu, thinks the party's growing strength is a protest against established elites, saying, "There's a lot of generic dissatisfaction in the electorate in regards to how 'business as usual' is done in politics. Certain parties and politicians have been in power for a long time and they've created a kind of class of professional politicians whose only experience in life has been doing politics.”