Facebook Blogging

Edward Hugh has a lively and enjoyable Facebook community where he publishes frequent breaking news economics links and short updates. If you would like to receive these updates on a regular basis and join the debate please invite Edward as a friend by clicking the Facebook link at the top of the right sidebar.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Estonia's 2007 e-lection

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera: San Juan, Puerto Rico

Estonia will be holding a parliamentary election on March 4, 2007, with advance voting taking place on February 19-23. The election will be the fifth legislative poll since 1991, when the country, along with neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, recovered its independence following fifty-one years of annexation by the Soviet Union. But voters in the smallest and northernmost of the three Baltic republics didn't need go to the polls to choose members of the country's 101-member unicameral Parliament, the Riigikogu, since on February 26-28 they were able to cast electronic votes, or e-votes, using Internet-connected personal computers equipped with an ID card reader.

E-voting also allows voters to change their vote by re-voting electronically, or by voting in a polling place. In either case, only the last vote cast by the elector will be counted, and any previously cast e-vote shall be deleted.

Internet voting was introduced in Estonia for the first time in the 2005 municipal elections. However, only 1.85% of the voters - 0.88% of the electorate - cast an electronic vote in the event, whereas 3.4% of the electorate cast e-votes in the 2007 parliamentary election, according to preliminary figures published by Estonia's National Electoral Committee.

Members of the Riigikogu are elected for a four-year term of office by universal suffrage and proportional representation (PR) in twelve multi-member constituencies, where electors vote for a specific candidate within a party list. Nonetheless, the overall distribution of parliamentary mandates is determined on a nationwide basis: Riigikogu seats are apportioned among parties polling at least five percent of the vote (electoral coalitions are not allowed since 1999), according to a modified form of the largest average method, which replaces the traditional d'Hondt divisors (1, 2, 3 and so on) with the series 10.9, 20.9, 30.9, etc. This procedure, mathematically equivalent to elevating the number of votes polled by each qualifying party to the power 1.111111... - 10 divided by 9, that is the reciprocal of 0.9 - and then distributing the seats according to the standard d'Hondt rule, favors the largest parties at the expense of the smaller ones: simply put, the increase brought about by exponentiation becomes larger as the number of votes increases.

In practice, the application of this unusual formula hasn't had much of an impact in the composition of successive Estonian legislatures: compared to the traditional d'Hondt method, the larger parties have usually picked up between one and three extra seats each, while smaller parties have lost no more than one seat apiece.

The five percent threshold and the modified PR rule notwithstanding, Estonia's post-independence party system has been characterized by a high degree of fragmentation and volatility, and the country has been ruled by a succession of shaky coalition cabinets which have lasted on average just over a year in office - a problem common to all three Baltic republics during both their present and preceding periods of independence. Nonetheless, center-right governments have been the norm in post-independence Estonia, except from 1995 to 1999, when the now-defunct, center-left Coalition Party was the country's dominant political force.

The results of the last Riigikogu election, held in March 2003, gave some tentative indications of increasing party stability. In the election, the minority center-right coalition government of the Estonian Centre and Reform parties that had been in power since the beginning of 2002 managed to improve its parliamentary standing, in stark contrast to the 1995 and 1999 legislative elections, when the incumbent parties at the time were soundly rejected at the polls. Nonetheless, the ruling alliance ended up being replaced by another center-right coalition comprised of the new, anti-corruption Res Publica, the Reform Party and the People's Union. However, the new government, headed by Juhan Parts of Res Publica, lasted only two years in office: in March 2005 it lost a parliamentary vote of confidence and was subsequently replaced by yet another right-of-center coalition government of the Centre Party, the Reform Party and the People's Union, led by Andrus Ansip of the Estonian Reform Party.

The ruling coalition went on to poll strongly in municipal elections held later that year, but Res Publica (Latin for "Public Matter"), which had emerged as the second largest party in the 2003 legislative vote (when it tied with the Centre Party as the largest parliamentary force), fared poorly and subsequently merged with an older conservative party, Pro Patria Union. As a result, there are now only five parties represented in the Riigikogu: Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica, Estonian Centre Party, Estonian Reform Party, Estonian People's Union, and the Social Democratic Party.

Like neighboring Latvia, Estonia has a sizable number of ethnic Russian inhabitants (as of 2006, just over a quarter of the country's declining population), but many of them do not have Estonian citizenship and cannot vote in parliamentary elections. In the 2003 Riigikogu election, the largely Russian-speaking Estonian United People's Party (now the Constitution Party) fell below the five percent threshold and lost its legislative representation. As in Latvia, the integration of what remains a significant Russian minority continues to be a major problem that has called the attention of Amnesty International. This issue also has foreign policy repercussions: Russia routinely accuses Estonia of discriminating against ethnic Russians, and relations between both countries remain tense, all the more so since Russia stubbornly clings to the fiction that Estonia (along with Latvia and Lithuania) voluntarily sought annexation to the Soviet Union in 1940.

Despite frequent cabinet upheavals since regaining independence, Estonia has consistently pursued a foreign policy strongly oriented towards the West in general and the European Union (EU) in particular. In light of its poor relations with Russia - not to mention the painful memories of the 1940-91 annexation to the U.S.S.R. - it came as no surprise that Estonia eagerly pursued membership in the EU as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), securing both in 2004.

Likewise, Estonia has re-oriented its trade towards the West, forging a particularly strong relationship with neighboring Finland - a country with whom Estonia shares a linguistic affinity, as the Estonian and Finnish languages are closely related. Although the Estonian economy has been performing strongly in the years since independence, the country remains among the poorest members of the European Union.

All the same, Estonia has become the first country in the world to hold a national legislative election using the Internet as a means of voting - a high-tech initiative that may be a harbinger of things to come.


Estonia's National Electoral Committee reports complete preliminary results of the March 4, 2007 Riigikogu election were as follows:

Reform Party - 153,044 votes (27.8%), 31 seats
Centre Party - 143,518 votes (26.1%), 29 seats
Pro Patria and Res Publica Union - 98,347 votes (17.9%), 19 seats
Estonian Social Democratic Party - 58,363 votes (10.6%), 10 seats
Estonian Greens - 39,279 votes (7.1%), 6 seats
Estonian People's Union - 39,215 votes (7.1%), 6 seats
Estonian Christian Democrats - 9,456 votes (1.7%), no seats
Constitutional Party - 5,464 votes (1.0%), no seats
Others - 3,527 votes (0.6%), no seats

Voter turnout stood at 61%, up from 58.2% in the 2003 parliamentary election.

The Estonian Reform Party of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip emerged as the election's big winner, increasing its parliamentary representation from 19 to 31 seats and displacing the Centre Party - which picked up an additional seat - as the country's largest political force. However, the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica suffered a major setback, losing sixteen seats with respect to the overall total won by its component parties in 2003 (when they ran separately); nonetheless, the merged party retained significant electoral support.

In all, six parties are represented in the new Riigikogu: Reform, Centre, the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, the Social Democrats (who increased their representation from six to ten seats), the People's Union (who lost seven of their thirteen seats) and the Estonian Greens, who secured parliamentary representation on their electoral debut.

Although the Reform-Centre-People's Union coalition government won re-election with an enlarged legislative majority, the ruling parties didn't form another government, due to differences between Reform and the Centre Party over Estonia's flat tax system. In April 2007 - one month after the election - incumbent Prime Minister Ansip formed a new center-right coalition government composed of his Reform Party, the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, and the Social Democrats.